PATTON arrived in England on January 26 and learned from Eisenhower the next day that he was to command the 3rd Army. Ike simultaneously administered a sharp lecture whose burden was “Think before you act; look before you leap.” “As far as I can remember,” Patton noted, “this is my twenty-seventh start from zero since entering the U.S. Army. Each time I have made a success of it, and this time must be the biggest.”
The developing chain of command for the Northwest Europe campaign slotted Patton as one of seven army commanders under three army groups. Dressed in his regulation best, cavalry boots gleaming, a riding crop in his hand, he began by informing his new headquarters that “I mean business when I fight. I don’t fight for fun, and I won’t tolerate anyone on my staff who does . . . Ahead of you lies battle. That means just one thing. You can’t afford to be a goddamned fool, because in battle fools mean dead men.”
By the time he finished, he had made believers out of the first thousand of his new command—at least most of them. As new divisions arrived, they received a similar speech to the effect that “No bastard ever won a war dying for his country.” It was a bravura performance, prefiguring the rock concerts of a later era. “Americans love to fight,” was the typical beginning. From there, Patton usually went on to insist on the importance of obedience and alertness; the superiority of American food, equipment, and men; and the vital contribution made by every member of the 3rd Army, no matter how mundane and inglorious his duty might appear. “We all want to go home,” he concluded. “But the quickest way home is through Berlin and over the Boche. And thirty years from now, when your grandson asks what you did in World War II, you won’t have to say, ‘I shoveled shit in Louisiana.’”
With his audiences growing larger, Patton acquired a loudspeaker truck. A proportion of his listeners were put off by the language. Another proportion, many of them college graduates, prided themselves on being impervious to inspirational rhetoric of any kind. One young officer described the speech made to his division as “worthy of a Latin American general or a southern demagogue”: mostly bombast larded with profanity. But to soldiers fresh from home, facing the unknowns of combat without even war movies as a guide, who knew Patton only by reputation, “The Speech” conveyed a sense of someone in charge, someone with a grip on a situation as frightening as it was unfamiliar.
“Soldiers, all men in fact, are natural hero worshippers,” Patton wrote his son. Because he believed what he was saying, Patton gave them a hero. Sixty years later, on a cruise commemorating the invasion’s anniversary, a cross-section of veterans briefly described their service at a reception in the ship’s main lounge. Airmen, sailors, and rangers, medics, truck drivers, and MPs stood in their turn. They mentioned ships and divisions, or anonymous small units long since disbanded. But only one name emerged, as again and again old men repeated “I was with the 3rd Army!” “I rolled with Patton!” And each time the room shook with applause.
Patton understood that he would be operating on a scale far larger than in Tunisia and Sicily. He had four corps headquarters, all green, assigned for training and planning. He could not be everywhere at once, as he had tried to be in those theaters. Although he never expressed such an idea overtly, Patton also seems to have at least considered the possibility that stress and fatigue had contributed to the behavior that had brought him low. In emergencies, he noted, everyone must work all the time. But “[p]ersons who did not rest did not last.”
As the 3rd Army took shape during early spring, Patton spent increasing amounts of time working with his senior officers. The old cavalryman knew when to dismount and use cover. Displeased with the “finish, class, and polish” of the newly arrived 5th Armored Division, Patton suggested its corps commander take the CO with him when inspecting another division that was getting it right, then “to avoid invidious comparisons,” take that division’s commander with him when he inspected the 5th. The idea was to bring the 5th up to standard “as painlessly as possible.” By V-E day, the 5th Armored’s record stood comparison with any in the ETO.
Patton also prepared and issued a series of papers setting forth his principles of combat. The first of them, dated March 6, emphasized leading in person. In World War I, and now in the Mediterranean, too many officers commanded from headquarters until the situation collapsed, then appeared at the front when it was too late to do any good. The 3rd Army’s commanders and staff officers were to visit the front daily, to view the situation with their own eyes and at the same time to be seen by their men. Maps were necessary, but there could never be too much reconnaissance: information was like eggs, the fresher the better. Orders must be short, telling “what to do, not how”—the concept of “mission tactics” surfacing again. At the same time, commanders must remember that issuing an order was the first 10 percent; insuring its “proper and vigorous execution” was the other 90. In that context, “[I]f you do not enforce and maintain discipline, you are potential murderers.” Remember, however, that praise was more valuable than blame. Decorations must be awarded promptly. Visit the wounded personally and frequently. And in the final grim analysis, a commander who did not gain his objectives and was not dead or severely wounded had not done his full duty.
Military mantras, to be sure: copybook maxims. But they set a tone in the inexperienced formations of the 3rd Army, a tone its commander was constantly reinforcing. “You will not simply mimeograph this and call it a day,” stated the instruction of April 3. “You are responsible that these usages become habitual in your command.” “I wish we had more of the killer instinct in our men,” Patton wrote to Bea. “They are too damned complacent—willing to die but not anxious to kill . . . The B[ritish] have suffered and are mad, but our men are not.” To his officers and men, Patton insisted, “You can never be too strong,” but battles were ultimately won by frightening the enemy. The successful soldier won cheaply in terms of his own casualties; violent attacks might be costly at the time, but saved lives in the end.
Not until his third letter of instruction on April 13 did Patton address in detail the employment of armor, and then he stressed armor-infantry cooperation. Because of a “slavish” notion that tanks should be used in mass, the independent tank battalions attached to the infantry divisions were too often neglected or misused. Infantry should lead against antitank guns, minefields, and fixed defenses. Tanks should keep out of villages, where their shock and fire power were neutralized. It was a long way from Louisiana and California, but it was solid advice for the hedgerows of Normandy and the built-up country of northwest Europe. It was also easier said than done: one of Patton’s major criticisms of the 3rd Army’s training exercises was the consistent failure of tanks and infantry to keep together. “I gave them hell,” he grumbled to his diary, “and hope they improve.”
As Patton oversaw and overhauled the preparation of his troops, he added a major element to his operational repertoire. From the beginning of Operation Torch, controversy had existed between the air and ground forces about the best approach to cooperation. To simplify a complex structure of argument, the airmen tended to prefer centralized control and deep deployment, with air assets held under air command to influence operations at sector and theater levels. The soldiers favored direct support and immediate presence. They liked to see planes overhead or at least have them on call for emergencies, like taxis.
Experience gained in the Mediterranean generated compromises and modifications. The revised Army Air Forces field manual issued in July 1943 stated in capital letters that “LAND POWER AND AIR POWER ARE COEQUAL AND INTERDEPENDENT FORCES.” Pursuant to that concept, the 9th Air Force, responsible for supporting the field armies in Northwest Europe, organized Tactical Air Commands, one to work with each field army. Brigadier General Otto P. Weyland arrived in England in January 1944 to take command of XIX TAC, the 3rd Army’s designated stablemate.
Patton was a predictably outspoken advocate of the ground-pounders’ position. He also enjoyed baiting his AAF colleagues as chocolate-cream soldiers who enjoyed such luxuries as hot food and hot showers in the frequent intervals between their brief encounters with the foe. “Nobody wasreally envious of me, let’s put it that way,” Weyland later described his assignment. He was in for a surprise. Patton understood clearly that the firepower he considered vital to mobility must come in good part from the air, particularly in view of the Army’s decision to provide only a limited amount of heavy artillery. His official report on the Sicily Campaign, virtually forgotten in the uproar over the slapping incident, showed a solid grasp of tactical air power’s strengths, limitations, and potential. He did not advocate direct control of air operations by ground commanders—a general had enough to do conducting the land battle.
Above all, Patton emphasized the importance of joint training and joint planning. He was willing to work closely with Weyland, to learn from him, and to give him full control of air operations. “The decisions were mine,” Weyland noted later, “as to how I would allocate the air effort.” Otto Weyland was himself extremely capable and deeply committed to working with ground forces. Two ranks junior to Patton, he saw no percentage in arm-wrestling over details and surface matters. While Weyland was not directly under his command, Patton’s typical approach to staff officers and senior subordinates was to give competence free rein. Patton saw in Weyland something of a kindred spirit: committed to providing ground support however necessary, even at the expense of orders and doctrine. He believed as well in positive reinforcement and found no difficulty in regularly praising the command staff and the fighter-bomber groups assigned to it. Patton described the XIX TAC-3rd Army relationship as the most successful example of air-ground cooperation in his experience. Later research bears out his contention.
“I am a pretty good judge of a fighting man when I see one,” Mrs. Marshall wrote to Patton, “and I am expecting great things of you.” Then in April, Patton blundered again. It began when he was invited to say few words at a local club for American soldiers operated by British civilians. For one of the few times in his life, Patton sought a low profile, arriving late and declining an invitation to stay for dinner. When the chair introduced Patton, she took pains to mention he was not present officially; and Patton took pains to acknowledge the loveliness of English ladies. He even quoted George Bernard Shaw when he praised the club and others like it for promoting understanding between the British and Americans—whose evident destiny it was, along with the Russians, to rule the world!
It was an innocuous exercise in hands across the sea. But there was a local reporter present. He filed a story that appeared in British papers and was picked up by U.S. wire services. Some editors saw a chance to improve circulation by reviving the slapping scandal. Others, both Democrat and Republican, in an election year were disturbed by what seemed not only inappropriate meddling in politics by a senior officer, but the casual depiction of a postwar world order that seemed to deny every statement of cooperative internationalism from the Atlantic Charter to the United Nations. The Washington Post in particular described Patton as progressing from individual assaults on soldiers to collective attacks on nationalities. Perhaps even more serious in the eyes of Patton’s colleagues, the Post recommended disapproving a list of permanent promotions that included Patton’s name.
This time Marshall got the news literally with his morning papers. The chief of staff, though not a man who reacted well to surprises, made it plain to Eisenhower that Patton’s experience against Rommel and his skill at mobile war justified keeping him in command if at all possible. “You should not weaken your hand for Overlord,” he cabled on April 2. “Everything else is of minor importance.” Marshall’s question whether Courtney Hodges could assume command of the 3rd Army and perform as Patton might be expected to was self-answering. Hodges was an infantryman, in the Bradley mold only more so, intended to take over Bradley’s 1st Army when the latter moved up to Army Group. Expecting him to conduct a campaign of exploitation meant ignoring everything Hodges had shown to date that he could and could not do.
Nevertheless, “Patton’s fate is hanging in the balance,” observed the secretary of war. Eisenhower was “just about fed up.” “Sick and tired of having to protect [Patton],” he was on the verge of relieving him—at least according to Bradley. The Supreme Commander ordered Patton to report to his headquarters, and on May 1, the two generals met privately. Their accounts could not be more different. Patton describes Eisenhower admitting his need for Patton’s talents and upbraiding him for putting Eisenhower in such a difficult position. Eisenhower told of showing Patton the documents authorizing his relief and seeing the “tough old soldier” literally begin to cry on Eisenhower’s shoulder, then standing to rigid attention as Eisenhower told him “keep your goddamned mouth shut.”
The generals’ interaction may remain a mystery. The most accurate depiction of their respective reactions is probably in the 2004 made-for-TV movie Ike: Countdown to D-Day, in which each is shown contrapuntally congratulating himself on having outmaneuvered the other. What is certain that on May 3, Eisenhower notified Patton that he would keep his command, and on May 4, he informed Marshall that relieving Patton would be counterproductive. D-day was a month away, and it was no time for a tempest in a teapot.
There was another reason why the Knutsford incident so angered Eisenhower. Patton’s presence in England had been kept secret as part of the general deception plan underwriting Overlord. Since 1940, the entire network of German spies in the United Kingdom had been operating under British control. The Double Cross system involved providing accurate information to the German Abwehr—but information of no importance or just out of date. To the Double Cross was added in late 1943 an even more elaborate complement. Operation Fortitude created entire armies out of whole cloth and radio call signs. It suggested possible invasion sites from Norway to Marseilles and was spectacularly successful in encouraging Hitler to retain thirteen divisions in Norway to secure the bases of a U-boat arm that had been ineffective for almost a year. By the end of May, Fortitude persuaded High Command West’s intelligence that the Allies had no less than eighty-nine divisions, with enough landing craft to bring twenty of them ashore in the first wave. The actual figures were forty-seven and six, respectively.
Fortitude’s core, however, was its effort to convince the Germans that the major invasion would take place in the Pas de Calais. To that end, a nonexistent 1st U.S. Army Group (FUSAG) was created, with a mixture of real and imaginary divisions under its command that made it seem not merely a pistol, but a cannon aimed at the area that, years before Rundstedt had described as posing the greatest long-term risk to Germany’s “Fortress Europe.” As a final touch, the notional Army Group was placed under command of the very real George S. Patton.
Patton’s stature among his opponents at this period is usually exaggerated, generally on the basis of quotations from his Allied colleagues describing how much the Germans feared him: “a Sherman and a Sheridan combined in one,” according to an American admiral. With a résumé based on a month in Tunisia and a few weeks of mopping up against half-hearted Italians in Sicily, Patton’s was not yet exactly a name to conjure with in Wehrmacht circles. Patton was regarded as the Western Allies’ most daring commander. He did not, however, have much competition for that title. Patton’s surfacing in England as an army group commander, and his simultaneous absence from the headlines that had been his métier, did seem to confirm the Allies as preparing for a massive thrust directly across the channel, led by one of their few generals experienced in command at the highest levels. German intelligence picked up and reported the slapping incident. But a Wehrmacht that formally executed almost 50,000 of its own men during the war was unlikely to believe such a bagatelle could adversely affect a senior officer’s career.
The course of Operation Fortitude is a classic illustration of the risks of tunnel vision in intelligence operations. Had part of the energy devoted to monitoring and analyzing Fortitude’s communications been directed instead to commonsense evaluation of possibilities, it seems likely that some bright colonel or major might have questioned whether an exhausted Britain and a United States fighting a two-ocean war could in fact provide such huge forces even for a decisive operation. German intelligence, like the Wehrmacht of which it was a part, tended to focus on tactical and operational problems rather than production statistics and manpower pools. That, in turn, ironically, added to Eisenhower’s difficulties should he relieve Patton. The more he was in the news for any reason, the correspondingly greater became the chances of the Germans picking up a thread that would enable them to unravel Fortitude’s entire web.
Patton attended the final briefings as D-day approached, but as a marginal participant, he was not kept in the information loop for the events of June 5th and 6th. Patton toasted Montgomery’s health and wished Bradley well when his onetime subordinate went over his final plans. He rejoiced at the invasion’s success but found it “Hell to be on the sidelines” and had “horrible feelings that the fighting will be over before I get in.” For Patton, June 7, not June 6, was “the longest day I have ever spent.” He took to wearing his shoulder holster daily “so as to get myself into the spirit of the part.” And as the invasion stalled in the hedgerows of Normandy, above all Patton fretted at the loss of time and lives.
The D-day landings were close-run, especially in the American sector. June 6 was a German defeat as well as an Allied victory, and the roots of that defeat ran deeper than Hitler’s control of operational details. What was important was not the Fuehrer’s alleged late sleeping on that morning, but his uncertainty as to whether the Normandy landings were only a diversion. That uncertainty was shared at all levels in High Command West, however much it was denied later. Committing the armored reserves meant the die was indisputably cast, and for all their alleged battlefield virtuosity, the German generals were reluctant to throw that final switch.
One man who might have made a difference was absolutely elsewhere. Rommel, despite Hitler’s repeated compliments on his achievements, remained concerned at the weaknesses of his army group. He wanted at least two more Panzer divisions removed from Geyer’s command and moved forward to the coast. As a field marshal, he was entitled to direct access to Hitler and believed his best chance was in a personal discussion with the Fuehrer. He planned his trip for early June. Weather and tide conditions were expected to be unfavorable for an invasion. Lu’s fiftieth birthday was approaching, with all the traumas accompanying that particular number. Rommel proposed to spend a couple days with her at Herrlingen in Bavaria, where the family had relocated from Wiener Neustadt, and where he would be readily available to reply if Hitler gave him an appointment at Berchtesgaden. Rundstedt approved; Rommel phoned Hitler’s headquarters and left on the morning of June 5.
Might Rommel’s presence at his headquarters have generated a different German response on the morning of June 6? Certainly his propensity for taking immediate action would have been felt everywhere along the German chain of command. Based on his previous record, Rommel was more likely to be willing to make a mistake in calling the invasion than to wait another hour, another half hour, to be sure. He might have insisted on speaking to Hitler personally earlier in the day and persuaded him to release the Panzer reserves. He might have convinced Rundstedt and Geyer to move the reserves without orders, or taken charge himself and expected victory to justify him.
Such speculations by staff officers and junior commanders arguably incorporate a serious element of wishful thinking. Rommel’s personality was as forceful as any in the Third Reich—but his track record of actually changing the decisions of his superiors was definitely spotty. The chain of command in France was much more rigid than it had been in Africa. As much time might have been lost in arguing as was sacrificed by indecision. Rommel would almost certainly have gone forward to organize and galvanize counterattacks, as he had done so often in Africa. On the other hand, Rommel could not repeal the laws of space and time. The reserves were a long way from the landing beaches—particularly when the delaying effect of Allied air power is considered. The 21st Panzer Division, the armored formation closest to the invasion zone, was according to its commander so dispersed by Rommel’s previous orders that it was unable to mount a counterattack until afternoon. Even if Rommel had relieved him, the prospects of a new man doing better were slim. Had the two additional divisions Rommel requested been available, the story might have been different—but that was why he was absent in the first place.
Rommel, notified early on the morning of the 6th by his chief of staff that something big was happening, returned to France and reached his headquarters around 10 P.M. By then the initial Allied lodgment was reasonably secure, with more than 150,000 men ashore on five beaches. But the 12th SS Panzer and Panzer Lehr had been released and were on their way. The SS and what remained of the 21st Panzer counterattacked the 3rd Canadian Division west of Caen the next day, beginning a series of operations that stalled Montgomery’s projected British-tipped breakout in its tracks and nurtured hopes from Hitler’s headquarters downward that the Allies might after all be driven into the sea. Otherwise, Germany faced once again what had been its military nightmare since the days of Frederick the Great: a land war on multiple fronts.
Rommel, as sector commander, had three concerns. The first was the continued possibility of a second invasion in the Pas de Calais. The second was containing, then rolling back, the British in the Caen sector. The third was keeping the Americans from breaking into the Brittany peninsula and capturing the port of Cherbourg. As the Allied buildup continued, the formations of Army Group B responded by mounting the sharp local counterattacks Rommel had intended as the first level of response. Anything larger was frustrated by Allied air supremacy. “The enemy has total command of the air up to 60 miles behind the front,” Rommel recorded on June 10. “[B]y day the movement of our troops on the battlefield is almost completely paralysed.”
To the air strikes were added the effect of naval guns with what seemed unlimited supplies of ammunition. On land, Allied artillery had a devastating effect on German concentrations. Their Sherman and Cromwell tanks might be individually inferior to the Panthers and Tigers, but there were so very many more of them. The material superiority of which Rommel had warned since his North African days was battering his troops into submission, in a theater whose geography prohibited trading space for position, as could be done in the desert.
The alternate solution, grabbing the Allies by the throat and hanging on, was working for the present. Its success depended heavily, however, on the enemy’s tactical shortcomings. These were in good part a function of inexperience, which from the German perspective was a wasting asset. Even before the invasion Rommel observed that “we are facing an enemy who applies all his native intelligence to the use of his many technical resources . . . Dash and doggedness no longer make a soldier . . . he must have sufficient intelligence to enable him to get the most out of his fighting machine. And that’s something these people can do . . .”
Aside from the operational problems accompanying any attempts at redeployment and concentration, Rommel dragged the ball and chain of another of Hitler’s “no retreat” orders. Almost every troop movement needed the approval of the Wehrmacht High Command—a bureaucratic process that significantly inhibit the quick responses Rommel considered vital to maintaining a successful defense against superior forces. Though the British continued to drive hard around Caen, Rommel advocated hammering the Americans, still tangled in the bocage and showing increasingly the weaknesses accompanying first-time combat. Casualties especially in the infantry divisions were so heavy that the informal means of transmitting battlefield lessons were breaking down. Command was inadequate, or at best inexperienced. Morale was beginning to sag among veterans and replacements alike. Instead, the Fuehrer insisted that the theater reserves be concentrated against the British in the Caen sector, and Rundstedt followed him in taking the bait.
In December 1943, Manfred had decided to volunteer for the Waffen SS, who “were far better equipped than the army, and they had a more handsome uniform.” Rommel dismissed the idea as “out of the question.” When pressed, according to Manfred, Rommel said he did not want his son serving under a man like Himmler, who was authorizing mass killings. Now the men in black who wore the lightning runes formed an indispensable component of his armored force. Rommel had to work with party hard cases, like Sepp Dietrich, commander of the I SS Panzer Corps. He had to come to terms as well with the fact that Dietrich and his subordinates gave him the same kind of loyalty as his old Africa hands had done when the going was desperate, while their men fought with no less courage and skill than the men in army Feldgrau.
In the weeks after the landing, Rommel continued to spend time up front. By now, however, “front” usually meant a divisional headquarters. As an army group commander, Rommel had moved a long way up the chain since the days when his responsibility extended to three or four divisions. The “hussar tricks” that frustrated the Allies at the sharp end were the province of the young studs: Hans von Luck, now commanding a regiment in the 21st Panzer Division, or Kurt Meyer, who took over the 12th SS Panzer when its CO was killed by naval gunfire.
The close and broken terrain of Normandy also did not lend itself to the kind of in-and-out, “now you see him, now you don’t” interventions characteristic of Rommel’s command style in France and North Africa. Allied tactical air forces were close to their peak strength on D-day, and the force-ratios they could apply to the still-constricted beachhead were exponentially higher than during the rest of the campaign. In the British sector especially, fighter-bombers were circling the battlefield looking for targets of opportunity—“cab ranks,” British tankers and infantrymen called them, invoking the taxis that circled Piccadilly seeking a fare. Air power’s dominant role in Normandy has been questioned as a self-serving excuse offered by German generals to explain their defeat. The direct effectiveness of air attacks against German tanks. especially the heavies, was in fact limited. The effect of constant bombing and strafing on morale and effectiveness was, however, beyond doubt even in the best divisions. Too many veterans insist they experienced nothing like that anywhere during the war, even in the worst days of the Russian front, to dismiss their testimony as hyperbole. Staff cars, traveling alone or with small escorts, made even more tempting targets. Casualties mounted among senior officers trying in the German tradition to keep touch with their forward units. Others like Geyr von Schweppenburg had the kinds of narrow escape that left brave men shaken for days, judgments clouded and perspectives skewed. Fritz Bayerlein, hardly the exemplar of a timid man, assigned “broomstick commandos” to sweep away tire tracks left in roads and fields by the vehicles of Panzer Lehr.
Was it time to begin thinking of cutting the Reich’s losses in Normandy and falling back into France? And even then, was it possible to establish any defensive positions short of the Rhine itself that the Allies could not eventually break through or outflank? Had it become necessary to consider stabilizing the situation in the west as a step toward a political solution: seeking at least to open negotiations at some level with the British and Americans? Again Rommel kept his own counsel. But on June 17, when Hitler summoned Rundstedt and Rommel to a conference at Soissons, Rommel described conditions at the front as impossible and challenged Hitler to come and see for himself. Instead of debilitating the Panzer divisions’ strength by using them to shore up local weaknesses, he proposed a limited retreat, drawing the Allies out of range of their naval guns and then attacking into the flank of the major offensive he expected to develop around Caen. Rommel said later that the project offered no more than a one in four chance of success, but even that was better than the certain defeat looming in Normandy.
Hitler’s reply was a declaration that the Allies were committed to developing their beachheads and, therefore, the front as it stood must be held at all costs. The Kriegsmarine and the Luftwaffe would interrupt Allied supplies. Additional reserves, including two SS Panzer divisions from Russia and the 2nd SS Panzer from southern France, would be brought into the theater for a massive attack on the beaches as their logistic support diminished. This last was no off-the-wall Fuehrer insight, but conventional general staff wisdom: seizing the initiative and seeking a decision by a single major operation. The very next day, however, the Allied High Command decided the first phase of Overlord had succeeded and began implementing its own plans for a breakout. Ironically, the operation was delayed by a four-day storm that did what the Germans were in the event unable to do: disrupt the movement of supplies and reinforcements to France.
For the next ten days, the German situation nevertheless worsened along what to Rommel were predictable lines. The initial decisive point of the Allied offensive, insofar as one existed, was in the British/Canadian sector, where Montgomery mounted a series of offensives named after famous British races. Their purpose, whether to open the way into France or to engage and fix draw the German armor reserves, has been intensively debated, usually along national lines. Their result was to draw more and more German armor into what became killing grounds that absorbed formations High Command West and Army Group B intended for the major counterattack, that in terms of tanks pitted numbers against quality in a series of tactical standoffs, and whose casualty rates on the British side compared with the worst weeks of the Somme and Passchendaele.
Meanwhile, the Americans under Bradley chewed through the bocage with more determination than finesse, moving into the Cotentin peninsula, capturing a devastated Cherbourg on June 26. First Army’s broad-front attack on St. Lô, beginning on July 3, was another grind-it-out process that filled aid stations and hospitals rapidly but made slow progress forward. “By July 10,” Bradley admitted, “we faced a real danger of a World War I-type stalemate in Normandy.”
On June 29, Hitler once again summoned Rommel and Rundstedt, this time all the way to Berchtesgaden. In a rambling and convoluted presentation, he ordered the beachhead contained while the navy counterattacked with all available resources and the Luftwaffe regained air superiority with jets, rocket planes, and a thousand newly produced fighters. “Special bombs” were to be used against allied battleships, whose destruction Hitler considered outstandingly important.
The presentation could hardly have been less relevant to the situation. In his previous meeting with Hitler, Rommel had taken advantage of an air-raid warning that temporarily disrupted the recording procedures to tell the Fuehrer that politics must come into play before the situation deteriorated beyond saving. On the way to Berchtesgaden, he and Rundstedt had spoken together—a conversation ending when Rommel said loudly, “I agree with you. The war must be ended and I shall tell the Fuehrer so, clearly and unequivocally.” Now he spoke openly and in public. On behalf of the German people, to whom he was also answerable, Rommel declared it high time that Hitler learned of the real situation in the west—beginning with the political situation. Hitler slammed down his hand and told Rommel to confine himself to military matters. Rommel replied, “History demands of me that I should deal first with our overall situation.” Ordered again to stick to military matters, Rommel fell silent. Solicited for his views, he said again he must speak on the subject of Germany. Hitler ordered him from the room.
Rommel returned to his headquarters expecting to be summarily relieved. In fact, it was Rundstedt who was dismissed, replaced by Field Marshal Gunther von Kluge, Rommel’s old commander from 1940. He had established a formidable reputation in Russia but had been out of action for months as the result of a car accident. Hitler spent several days convincing him the pessimism of Rundstedt and Rommel was the main problem in the western theater, and one of Kluge’s first actions on assuming command was to insist Rommel obey Hitler’s orders unconditionally. The resulting exchange grew so heated the staff officers were sent from the room. Rommel also prepared a report and forwarded a copy to Hitler. It set forth in measured language “the reasons why it has been impossible to maintain a lasting hold on the Normandy coast, the Cherbourg peninsula, and the fortress of Cherbourg . . .” Most of them involved the rejection of his ideas by the High Command, especially failure to complete the coastal fortifications and poor deployment of the armored reserves.
Kluge, a competent field soldier and a quick study, rapidly came around to Rommel’s view of the military situation’s desperate nature, in particular the effect of Allied air strikes on troop movements above the battle group scale. For the first two weeks of July, the front held, but as Allied strength and allied pressure increased in his sector, Rommel prepared another report. Allied material superiority was inflicting such high casualties that the fighting power of the German divisions was rapidly disappearing. Fewer than six thousand replacements had arrived to balance almost a hundred thousand casualties. For tanks, the ratio was 17 to 225. Conditions in the rear were so bad that “only the barest essentials” were reaching the front. A breakthrough somewhere on the overstressed Normandy front, followed by a deep thrust into France, must be expected in the foreseeable future. “[T]he unequal struggle,” Rommel concluded, “is approaching its end. It is urgently necessary for the proper conclusion to be drawn from this situation . . . I feel duty bound to speak plainly on this point.”
Rommel had submitted the report to Kluge on July 16, who forwarded it to Hitler with an unexpectedly positive endorsement. The next day, Rommel undertook another of his visits to the front. He had grown increasingly concerned about the prospect of a breakthrough attempt in the Caen sector, and his destinations, ironically, were the SS units that had taken heavy casualties in the recent fighting. Ironic, too, was an elliptical discussion with Sepp Dietrich. According to Rommel’s aide, he asked whether Dietrich would execute his orders even if they contradicted Hitler’s. Dietrich offered his hand and said, “You’re the boss, Herr Feldmarschall.”
Was this last visit to the front an effort to kill two birds with one stone? Since his return from Berchtesgaden, Rommel had been talking with officers he felt he could trust—initially his old comrades from Africa, then a wider and more senior circle. As later reported, the thrust of the conversations was generally the same. Rommel spoke of taking advantage of his positive image to negotiate a truce with the Western Allies even against Hitler’s will.2 Should the Fuehrer remain obdurate, Rommel proposed to open the front—that is, to order resistance to cease in Army Group B’s sector. The optimal time would be when the inevitable breakout began: whatever Kluge did, the entire western front could be expected to unravel in chaos. At best, the Allies would allow Germany to hold the line on the eastern front. At worst, they would reach Berlin before the Russians.
Did these encounters represent a developing intention, a sequence of ruminations, or exaggerations by men who after the war had every interest in connecting Rommel, and by extension themselves, with the German resistance? Sometimes in those conversations Rommel discussed and rejected suicide. Sometimes he drifted, on one occasion speculating that Germany might eventually become a British dominion like Canada, and on another talking of securing Hitler’s permission to request a personal meeting with Montgomery—“one old soldier to another.” On the other hand, Rommel had already opened radio links with the Americans for the purpose of directly exchanging severely wounded and their medical attendants—on July 2 and July 9, such exchanges actually took place.
As for Hitler’s fate, Rommel both before and after the assassination attempt went on record as calling it a political mistake in that it risked making Hitler a martyr, and a moral error in that if Hitler had acted unjustly he should be brought to trial—all very logical and very high-minded. But there is a familiar German proverb that to eat sausage it is necessary to butcher the swine. It is unlikely that Rommel did not reckon with a certain swine having a fatal accident in the course of the projected regime change. A hundred years earlier, a general had led part of the Prussian army in a revolt against Napoleon that eventually won over the rest of the generals and the king as well. Rommel in his own mind was still the Desert Fox—still the master at turning breaking situations to advantage by moving decisively at what more timid men called the last minute. But given what he might have to do, deniability was essential. His hands must remain as clean as possible.
The question became moot on the late afternoon of July 1, when Rommel’s car was attacked by two fighter-bombers. He was so badly wounded the initial diagnosis was that he was out of the war for the rest of the year. In any case, he would have had only three days to decide. On July 20, the U.S. 1st Army unleashed Operation Cobra: the long-awaited breakthrough that eviscerated the German front in Normandy.
The Germans might be reeling under the Allied sledgehammer, but what dominated thoughts and emotions on the other side of the line was the maddeningly limited progress through Normandy. Patton had spent June chafing to get into action. On July 6, he arrived in France by C-47, landing on an airstrip near Omaha Beach and promising the soldiers who gathered around him to “personally shoot that paper-hanging goddamned son of a bitch . . . when we get to Berlin.” For the next three weeks, his destiny was more pedestrian as he adjusted to the circumstances of a new theater of war. He had not been Bradley’s first choice as an army commander, and after six weeks of frustration, Bradley was anything but amenable to the barrage of suggestions and recommendations his new subordinate offered for ending the stalemate. Patton, for his part, described Bradley and Hodges as “nothings” who pushed all along the front, developed no power anywhere, and believed “all human virtue depends on knowing infantry tactics.” “I could break through in three days,” he declared. “All that is necessary now is to take chances by leading with armored divisions and covering their advance with air bursts.”
Patton’s criticism of his colleagues ironically paralleled Montgomery’s denigration of Eisenhower for favoring a broad-front approach instead of developing a grip on the campaign. At this stage of the operation, the British field marshal was if anything pleased to see Patton in the field. He considered him the hardest driver in the Allied camp and correspondingly valuable despite a continuing willful disinterest in administration and preparation. As for Patton’s disciplinary issues, Montgomery had taken pains to stay out of what he insisted to his British subordinates was an American affair. Patton’s opinion of Montgomery both as a field commander and a general who knew how to inspire and lead troops was no less positive: he was the best of the British generals despite a definite lack of boldness. The negative references in his diary and correspondence to date had overwhelmingly involved what he considered Eisenhower’s readiness to be “bound hand and foot by the British.”
Montgomery, in any case, was enough of a general to appreciate the difficulty in which he found himself as July began to wane. He had planned and hoped for deep penetrations on D-day. Instead, the Allied front had virtually stabilized. Only with the capture of Caen on July 9 was he able to implement plans for a breakout. The heavy concentration of German armor against the 21st Army Group might not have been part of the grand strategic design Montgomery later described—some say invented—but he took advantage of it once it developed. The first phase of the offensive, Operation Goodwood, was a full-scale attack by the British 2nd Army, intended both to pin down the German tanks and to break through them into the open country around Caen. The second phase involved the 1st U.S. Army’s attacking south, clearing Brittany and swinging east into France.
Bradley was also enough of a general to perceive the necessity for breaking out of the confines of the beachhead, as opposed to grinding through them. The result was Operation Cobra. Bradley’s plan, reduced to its essentials, was to concentrate against a sector of his front where the road network facilitated movement, blow it open, then break through the German defenders into the open country beyond. Frequently described as uncharacteristic of Bradley in particular and the U.S. Army of World War II in general, Cobra, in fact, combined fire power and exploitation in a way familiar to American interwar thinking. It worked magnificently despite a series of costly short drops by heavy bombers integrated for the first time in the war into ground operations.
As Goodwood and its successors held the Panzers in check and were checked by them, what began on July 20 in the American sector as a breakthrough became a breakout.
German reserves were exhausted. German commanders who had spent six weeks responding to local, specific threats were unable to readjust their thinking to the changed scale and pace of events. The general they most trusted, who might have understood what was beginning to happen, was in a hospital. Resistance eroded, then crumbled, then collapsed. On July 31, the 4th U.S. Armored Division captured the key road junction of Avranches, and Kluge described the situation to High Command West as a Riesensauerei(ratfuck), with the Americans on the verge of being able to do what they wanted.
On August 1, the 3rd Army officially took the field, with Bradley moving up to command the 12th Army Group. Patton’s initial mission was the overrunning of Brittany. In one sense, the operation was a sideshow, as far away from the decisive sector as Bradley could arrange. Brittany’s ports were nevertheless considered vital for the invasion’s logistics—even more so given the damage in Cherbourg and the June storm’s effect on over-the-beach supply facilities. Bradley wanted the peninsula cleared expeditiously. Patton proposed to put some tempo into the war wherever he began: “rush them off their feet before they get set.”
The 3rd Army initially committed two corps to Brittany. The battle-tested VIII under Troy Middleton, transferred from the 1st Army, led through the Avranches corridor; Wade Haislip’s XV followed, deploying as space became available. Avranches was choked with rubble. There were two roads south, both mined, and both blocked with wrecked vehicles and dead men. In one of the campaign’s best examples of staff work, the 4th and 6th Armored Divisions pushed through in twenty-four hours, Patton himself profanely directing traffic for ninety minutes in the center of Avranches. Within three days, a hundred thousand men were clear of the bocage and the Brittany Sweepstakes was well under way.
The 4th Armored was to take Rennes, then Lorient; the 6th would advance on St. Malo and drive for Brest. The tankers, bouncing off episodically determined resistance, outran their initial objectives, then outran wire and radio communications, then ran off their maps. Middleton kept touch by using light planes, as the Germans did in 1940. Patton has been criticized for the energy with which he pursued what rapidly became a diversion, and for eventually leaving the crack 6th Armored Division to play a static role for a month in front of Brest and Lorient. When the 4th Armored captured Rennes, its commander, John Wood, argued strongly for turning east toward Germany instead of west into the peninsula. But given the importance of Brittany and its ports to long-term Allied planning, Patton can scarcely be faulted for pursuing his assigned objective energetically in his first action as the 3rd Army’s commander—particularly given his distinct probationary status in Bradley’s eyes.
With VIII Corps driving deeper into Brittany and XV Corps following in its wake, Bradley feared a German counterattack into Patton’s increasingly exposed flank. “Some people,” Patton observed, “are more concerned with headlines and the news they’ll make rather than the soundness of their tactics.” Patton in any case considered tactics the province of battalion commanders. “If generals knew less tactics, they would interfere less.”As XV Corps cleared its sector against limited resistance, as the toll of German prisoners mounted into the thousands, above all as American casualties remained unbelievably low by previous standards, Bradley’s anxiety gave way to a concept of using Avranches as the base for a turn north and east. The 3rd Army had two other corps, XX and XII, in its order of battle. Feed them through Avranches, join them to XV Corps, strike into the German rear—suddenly Paris itself did not seem out of reach.
Patton had spent part of his time in England studying the routes used nine centuries earlier by William the Conqueror in his campaigns in Normandy and Brittany, reasoning accurately that those roads had to be on good terrain. He spent time as well studying maps of western Europe, noting—again accurately—the places he expected to fight. He was already anticipating an order to turn XV Corps toward the Seine when Bradley explained his expanded vision to Eisenhower. Eisenhower was no less enthusiastic, informing Marshall that in two or three days the 12th Army Group would be in a position to destroy the German forces in its sector and exploit forward “as far as possible.”
The crushing defeat of the German counterattack on August 6-7 at Mortain left most of what remained of High Command West’s mobile troops in a salient whose flanks were completely exposed. On August 3, Bradley had ordered Patton to complete operations in Brittany with a minimum of forces and prepare for “further action with strong armored forces to the east and southeast.” Now he was attracted by a “short hook” option that would send XV Corps into the immediate German rear, through Argentan, and toward Falaise, where it would meet the newly activated 1st Canadian Army advancing on that road junction from the north and cut off the German forces in a developing “Falaise pocket.” In the aftermath of that victory, the drive on Paris would be a milk run.
Montgomery, still officially the overall ground force commander until Eisenhower’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) became operational, accepted Bradley’s concept but saw Falaise as an element of a deeper envelopment, with the 21st Army Group turning left and driving east for the Seine while the Americans cut across the now-open German southern flank and eventually turned north toward Paris. Patton, his eyes as well on the French capital as the objective of a strategic maneuver, wanted to complete the Falaise operation quickly while turning the rest of the 3rd Army loose in the German rear. Instead, the Canadian 1st Army advancing from the north made headway slowly against resistance as skilled as it was determined. Patton responded by ordering XV Corps on August 12 to take Argentan and push toward Falaise. He was convinced Haislip could close the gap and hold the line until he was reinforced or the Germans collapsed—whichever came first.
When Patton sought confirmation from Bradley’s headquarters, he spoke of “another Dunkirk,” in the sense of driving forward until his spearheads found the Canadians—the probable original source of the often-quoted one-liner about driving the British into the sea. Bradley replied, “Nothing doing. You’re not to go beyond Argentan.” He explained his decision in terms of intelligence reports of German troops massing for a counterattack, saying then and later that he preferred “a solid shoulder at Argentan to the possibility of a broken neck at Falaise.” An alternate explanation describes Bradley as an orthodox infantrymen who “. . . just didn’t understand these crazy Armor people.”
Accounts focusing on the Canadian/Polish advance from the north use the fierce resistance encountered in that sector as evidence that Patton proposed to bite off more than he could chew. Had XV Corps pushed past Argentan, the argument runs, it would almost certainly have found itself in a pitched battle with the rough equivalent of eight or ten German infantry and Panzer divisions, desperate to break out of the pocket. The accompanying implication is that the Americans were not that much better than their allies, especially when it came to close-quarters fighting.
In the event the Canadians did not capture Falaise until August 16; the pocket was not officially declared closed until three days later. Under unprecedented levels of air attack, the German army dissolved, abandoning vehicles and equipment helter-skelter in a desperate effort to push through the Allied gauntlet. Only ten of the fifty divisions committed to Normandy remained combat-effective. The fifty thousand men who escaped, including a high percentage of headquarters and staff officers, would in a matter of weeks become the nucleus of a revived German effort in the west. That they survived to do so was not the responsibility of George Patton.
Patton and his supporters ever since have depicted Bradley at Falaise as taking counsel of his anxieties. Alternatively, it might be said that Bradley was micromanaging. If Patton believed XV Corps could hold the gap, the responsibility was his—and so would be the voyage back to the States if he was wrong. Martin Blumenson and Carlo d’Este combine to develop a strong alternate-history case. Had Patton commanded the 12th Army Group instead of Bradley, he would have acted more decisively than Bradley; cooperated more closely with Montgomery, whose strategic vision in this case he shared; and been able to convince Eisenhower, his friend of many years, to endorse the risks of a long thrust into France.
Perhaps—but the Germans would have had something to say about it. The Reich possessed substantial reserves of men and material positioned for deployment in the western theater. The German army in the west may not have been the first team, but it was nevertheless a formidable opponent, able to charge high tuition for the tactical and operational lessons it taught its opponents. What is certain is that Falaise became for Patton a springboard. At the head of the 3rd Army, he was about to embark on a run of victories that changed the face of the war in Northwest Europe. Instead of head-on engagements, flanking became the norm. Instead of the grind-it-out attrition of Normandy, advances of twenty, thirty, or fifty miles at a bound became the standard for judging success.
It began when Patton responded to Bradley’s halt order by suggesting instead that he turn east with the bulk of the 3rd Army and drive toward the Seine and Paris. Walton Walker’s XX Corps and Manton Eddy’s XII had begun fanning out across France even as XV Corps turned toward Falaise and VII Corps mopped up in Brittany. When Bradley ordered the halt, Patton convinced his superior to turn Haislip and two divisions eastward as well, leaving three divisions to hold the Falaise sector until the 21st Army Group should finally arrive.
“It is really a great plan,” Patton exulted, “wholly my own and I made Bradley think he thought of it.” Bradley, no less impatient for great results than his subordinate and arguably even more anxious to show up Montgomery for his slowness, had entertained a similar vision since the end of July. He needed correspondingly little convincing. The result for Patton was the culmination of a lifetime’s worth of dreams. As the 3rd Army exploded into France, he had been constantly at the front, exhorting corps and division commanders to keep moving, testing his nerve under fire, and recording his reactions. He transformed an entire mechanized cavalry group, two squadrons, into an information service on the lines of Montgomery’s Phantom, operating in small units across the 3rd Army’s front, reporting directly the state of affairs on the line. When infantryman Manton Eddy, new to corps command, asked how far he was expected to advance in a day, Patton replied it depended on the state of his nerves. Told to go fifty, Eddy turned pale—at least according to Patton. “[T]he lambent flame of my own self-confidence burns ever brighter,” he wrote as early as August 6.
Some of his subordinates thought that flame burned too brightly. Fourth Armored Division’s John Wood excoriated after the war Patton’s commitment of the 4th and 6th Armored to a Brittany offensive that went in the wrong direction. In fact, the 4th Armored was warned for movement east as early as August 11 and changed direction in time to establish a lambent reputation in the drive across France. Bradley as well entertained second thoughts, ordering Patton on August 16 not to go beyond a line Dreux-Chartres-Orleans, on the very edge of the Orleans-Paris gap. His concern for a developing fuel shortage and his fear of exposing the 3rd Army’s flanks too greatly lasted only a day. Patton’s lead divisions were meeting no more than scattered resistance from broken formations and improvised battle groups. The successful Franco-American landing in the south of France on August 15 and the subsequent drive up the Rhone Valley diminished concern for the 3rd Army’s southern flank. Courtney Hodges, seeking to establish himself in command of the 1st Army, was unlikely to admit for the record that he could not cover Patton’s left. On August 17, Bradley lifted his stop order. On the 20th, the 3rd Army’s 79th Infantry Division reached the Seine. Patton made a personal pilgrimage to the river to urinate in it. He then convinced Bradley to let him send the XX and XII Corps across the Seine in hot pursuit of the dissolving Germans along the highways running east to the old Franco-German frontier.
The 3rd Army’s triumphant advance owed much to its evolution as an air-ground combat team. One anecdote, which deserves to be true, has Patton sending for Weyland on August 1 and greeting him with a quart of bourbon. By the time the bottle was empty, the two generals had sworn brotherhood. Of more practical use were the series of joint planning projects the XIX TAC and the 3rd Army headquarters conducted in the weeks before Operation Cobra; the careful attention they paid to the relationships of the 1st Army to its companion IX TAC; and such technical innovations as the installing in Sherman tanks of radios able to communicate with aircraft and experienced pilots to control the strikes thus called in. It did no harm that XIX TAC was junior partner to IX TAC and its colorful and competent commander, Major General Elwood Quesada. Patton’s attitude, and his patronage, were correspondingly welcome in Weyland’s headquarters.
From the beginning of the breakout, XIX TAC’s P-47 Thunderbolts covered the ground troops like a blanket. In a simplified description, Weyland’s pilots specialized in close support, armored column cover with an entire group of seventy-five aircraft assigned to work with each of an armored division’s two combat commands, and “armed reconnaissance” missions, usually flown in squadron strength of around two dozen planes. Weyland threw away the air power book, decentralizing operations, delegating command, and dispersing assets as the situation dictated. Patton recommended that bomb lines be abolished and aircraft allowed to strike any target of opportunity. “Friendly-fire” casualties were an acceptable risk.
Although the P-47 could carry up to 2,500 pounds of bombs, and later an equivalent payload of air-to-ground rockets, pilots considered strafing a more effective form of attack, especially against unarmored targets. The Germans agreed. Thunderbolts carried eight .50-caliber machine guns in their wings. By this time obsolescent relative to cannon in fighter combat, the “fifty” was formidably intimidating as its rounds chewed their way across a road or kicked up lines of dust in a nearby field, leaving survivors to calculate just how close a call theirs had been as the Jabos pulled away.
On August 17, Patton wrote to General H. H. Arnold, commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Forces, “For about 250 miles I have seen the calling cards of the fighter bombers, which are bullet marks in the pavement and burned tanks and trucks in the ditches.” When asked if he worried about his flanks, he answered,“The Air Force takes care of my flanks.” The pilots did more than that. Weyland’s fighter-bombers hammered the garrisons still holding out in the fortresses of Brittany. They kept watch along the Loire River, screening the 3rd Army’s southern flank and shooting up German forces retreating from the south. They roamed up to 35 miles ahead of the main line of the 3rd Army’s advance into the heart of France, attacking Luftwaffe and army targets where they found them, reporting road and terrain conditions, and informing headquarters just where their subordinate formations were located. As the advance progressed, two other missions developed. One involved reporting, then keeping an eye on, possible counterattacks. Another turned the Army Air Forces traditional interdiction mission inside out. Instead of keeping enemy forces from entering the battle zone, Weyland’s fighter-bombers were tasked with preventing troop movements away from the fighting, keeping them within killing range.
Patton was back in the headlines with a vengeance. Slapping incidents and political incorrectness were forgotten as America’s front pages trumpeted the 3rd Army’s drive across France, into the frontier province of Lorraine, and toward the German border. He was insecure around the correspondents compared to his earlier years, reminding them regularly that the best way to get him sent home was to quote him. But like any born actor, he found it difficult to resist the lure of the footlights. On one occasion, when asked about his next plans, he pounded a map and declared that if Eisenhower gave him the supplies he needed, the 3rd Army would go through the German frontier defenses “like shit through a goose.”
Patton’s leitmotif from the beginning had been to attack without letup, giving the Germans to his front no time to regroup. “We can be in Germany in ten days,” he wrote on August 21. By August 26, the 3rd Army had advanced more than four hundred miles and liberated fifty thousand square miles of France. Critics have argued that Patton’s success was based on avoiding battle as opposed to seeking it, to a point where movement became a goal in itself, neglecting the disruption of communications, the overrunning of road junctions, and similar measures described by interwar armor theorists such as Fuller and Liddell-Hart. Patton would probably have agreed. Since the 1920s, he had argued for the prospects of destroying an army by bypassing resistance, using speed and shock to get inside the enemy’s decision loop, throw him off-balance, and keep him there until he could be killed or captured—or, preferably, until organized resistance simply collapsed.
Some analyses describe this concept as reflecting Patton’s understanding of the strengths and shortcomings of the American soldier and the U.S. Army. GIs understood machinery and what it could do. They had been formed by a culture of speed and power: home runs and the Indianapolis 500. On the other hand, so the argument runs, the American infantry in particular lacked the tactical ability and the moral tenacity of their German opponents. Manpower procurement policies allowed the skilled and the motivated to volunteer for the Navy and the Marines. The best of the draftees were assigned to the technical arms and services; the best of the rest volunteered for the paratroops. The infantry got what remained.
Institutionally, U.S. armored divisions were reorganized prior to the invasion, the number of nearly useless light tanks reduced from two-thirds to one-fourth of their strength. The reconfigured divisions, with three battalions each of tanks, infantry in half-tracks, and self-propelled light howitzers, were significantly more mobile than their German and Soviet counterparts. But with a strength of slightly more than ten thousand men, their shock and staying powers were significantly limited—so limited that after the war, a General Board recommended doubling the number of infantry battalions and virtually doubling the size of the division. The new field manual released in January 1944 addressed more than its predecessor the destruction of enemy forces in combat, but continued to stress the armored division’s primary role as exploitation: offensive operations in enemy rear areas. This was a sharp contrast to the Panzer divisions, which as the war progressed were increasingly configured as big, powerful formations designed for spearheading breakthroughs and counterattacks.
Patton who understood the consequences of both sets of decisions, played to their strengths. He did not delude himself about the depth of American combat motivation. His own need to reaffirm his courage gave him a visceral understanding of the emotions of the ordinary tanker or rifleman going into battle. Patton comprehended as well the effects of a replacement policy that for practical purposes kept men on the line until they became casualties. He understood that the “ninety division gamble,” which kept the ground forces at a minimum for the sake of maintaining war production and increasing air and naval power, made it impossible to withdraw formations from the rapidly expanding front for any length of time, either to rest and assimilate replacements or to form operational and strategic reserves. In those contexts, maneuver warfare, based on movement and momentum, was an optimal approach in the same way that someone running down a hill best sustains balance by increasing tempo. “We are going so fast,” he wrote Bea on August 21, “that I am quite safe.”
Nor was Patton performing in isolation. On August 19, Eisenhower, Montgomery, and Bradley agreed to bounce the Seine rather than pause to regroup. On August 30, a SHAEF intelligence summary declared the end of the war in sight. It was in those contexts that Montgomery began pushing for a “single thrust” northeastward by the 12th and 21st Army groups into the heart of Germany. He considered this the 1914 Schlieffen Plan in reverse, the most colossal of his long series of “colossal cracks,” and not least the final affirmation of his standing as a Great Captain. The Americans were given a significant role in the operation—that is, the 1st Army and the newly arriving 9th Army, which would deploy on Hodges’ left. To guarantee the logistical support necessary for this massive thrust, however, the 3rd Army must be grounded, forbidden any but local initiatives and receiving only a minimum amount of fuel.
Bradley countered with his own idea: a drive across the Frankfurt Gap and into central Germany by the 1st and 3rd Armies working in tandem, the British covering its left flank. If a thrust to the heart of the Reich was what was wanted, that was the most direct route. “Give us gas,” Patton raged, “we can eat our belts. We have, at this time, the greatest chance to win the war ever presented. . . . It is such a sure thing that I fear these blind moles don’t see it.”
Eisenhower’s decision to deny both Montgomery and Bradley in favor of a “broad-front” approach combined political and military elements. Montgomery’s proposal might in fact be an Allied operation—but it was unlikely to look like one to an America that had spent four years building a massive Army designed to operate as an independent force. Bradley and Patton already were submerging their differences all too readily, finding common ground in accusing Eisenhower of sacrificing decisive victory to Allied cooperation.
At the same time, Eisenhower was better aware than his fractious subordinates that the breakout and advance from the beaches had created a logistical problem that defied command solutions. In the aftermath of D-day, enough material was landed to fill 90 percent and more of the frontline units’ needs—including fuel. The problem was transportation—and by extension, administration. By September 14, the Allies had reached a line the quartermasters had not expected until May 1945. Martin van Creveld describes Overlord’s logistics planners as conservative to the point of pusillanimity and dismisses them as “prudent accountants.” Certainly the chief of the supply services, Lieutenant General J. C. H. Lee, was a man of balanced books and sharp pencils, unwilling by principle and unable by temperament to address the unexpected. Even had Lee been an inspired logistician and a good deal less of an obnoxious empire-builder, the damage done to an originally obsolescent French transportation system by weeks of preinvasion bombardment and years of neglect under German occupation defied rapid repair. The emergency use of trucks on a round-the-clock basis, the American Red Ball and its British counterpart Red Lion used up men, vehicles, and fuel at unsustainable rates.
The result was a SHAEF constrained to allocate fuel with what seemed medicine-dropper stinginess to the forward commanders, especially Patton, whose 3rd Army in its rush across France was using a daily average of 350,000 gallons of the 800,000 gallons consumed by the Allies’ vehicles. On August 29, Patton noted his army was 140,000 gallons short of “our share” of gas. His complaints proved futile—in part at least because Walter Bedell Smith, Eisenhower’s chief of staff and the designated master of gasoline allowances, was not averse to curbing what he considered Pattton’s risk-taking propensities by cutting back his fuel. By the turn of the month, daily deliveries shrank to 32,000 gallons, and the 3rd Army’s fuel tanks were literally running dry. Captured German supply dumps, creative administrative finagling, and occasional plain hijackings could not bridge the shortages created by Eisenhower’s decision to provide extra logistical support to Montgomery in the first two weeks of September.
Eisenhower’s original intention was that Montgomery concentrate on capturing the port of Antwerp and opening the Scheldt River. Antwerp had thirty miles of docks and more than six hundred cranes. It could handle sixty thousand tons of cargo daily, and the Belgian resistance had taken the facilities virtually intact. Instead, Montgomery pursued what turned out to be the fata morgana of a combined airborne and ground assault designed to bring the 21st Army Group onto the north German plain. As the multiple fiascos of Operation Market-Garden absorbed SHAEF’s attention and resources, the 3rd Army’s allocation of supplies shrank to around 2,500 tons a day, despite Bradley’s regular promises of more.
The accompanying authorization to cross the Moselle, attack the Siegfried Line, and go as far as the Rhine meant nothing without fuel, ammunition, and spare parts. On August 30, Patton again denounced the 3rd Army’s being denied gas in favor of a 1st Army that did not know how to use it. “We should cross the Rhine . . . and the faster we do it, the less lives and munitions it will take. No one realizes the value of the ‘unforgiving minute’ except me.” On September 1, elements of the 3rd Army captured Verdun. Patton was thirty-five miles west of the key fortress of Metz, seventy miles from the Siegfried Line. The next day at a conference of the 12th Army Group’s senior officers, Eisenhower discussed the coming great battle of Germany. “We assured him,” grumbled Patton, “that the Germans have nothing left to fight with if we push on now. If we wait, there will be a great battle of Germany.”
By September 14, gas was arriving to the 3rd Army by rail, but Patton did not enjoy the luxury of two days’ reserve supply until late October. Give me 400,000 gallons of gas, Patton told Bradley, and “I’ll put you inside Germany in two days.” The fuel was ultimately not Bradley’s to allocate. Nor did he seriously challenge Eisenhower’s decision to support Montgomery by directing the 1st Army north, away from the eastward-driving 3rd and toward the head-on confrontation with good German troops that eventually took its riflemen into the slaughterhouse of the Huertgen forest.
Sustained Allied progress all along the front in the last half of August reinforced the impression that the German army in the west was finished. Eisenhower’s chief of intelligence proclaimed “the end of the war in Europe within sight, almost within reach.” From the other side of the front, Siegrried Westphal, one of the most perceptive of senior German staff officers, agreed that the Allies until mid-October could have thrust deep into Germany, unopposed for all practical purposes. Patton’s effervescent optimism was fuelled specifically by ULTRA reporting German fears of a breakthrough in the Metz-Trier sector: the 3rd Army’s zone of advance. Perhaps as well, like the German Panzer generals in 1940, Patton was influenced by the relative speed and ease which the killing grounds of World War I had been overrun. “The Boche has no power to resist,” he noted on September 1. “You can’t have men retreating for three hundred or four hundred miles,” he noted at a press conference on the 7th, “and then hold anything.”
Four interrelated problems nevertheless hovered over the 3rd Army’s planning. One lay outside Allied control: the remarkable recovery of the Third Reich and the Wehrmacht in the west during the autumn of 1944. In the aftermath of the failed attempt on Hitler’s life on July 20, in the aftermath of the Red Army’s colossal breakthroughs in the East, the Nazi regime and the German people mobilized their last reserves of ferocity and fanaticism. Rationality was giving way to passion—and to fear, as retribution loomed for a continent’s worth of crimes committed “in the name of the German people.”
Operationally, that meant organizing defenses to take advantage not only of broken, wooded terrain ideal for German defensive tactics, but of the pillboxes and bunkers of a never-finished Siegfried Line and of a half-century’s worth of permanent fortifications constructed on the old Franco-German frontier between 1870 and 1914. Institutionally, that meant the reconstruction of shattered divisions, the filling of their ranks by new draftees or men combed out of the increasingly moribund navy and air force. It meant their rearmament by an industrial system that continued to defy the best efforts of the Combined Bomber Offensive. It meant morale enforced by field courts-martial that seemed to impose only one sentence: death; and by laws making a soldier’s family liable for any derelictions of duty.
Hitler concentrated the bulk of the newly available reserves in Patton’s sector. The 3rd Army had advanced the farthest eastward of the Allied forces; its momentum suggested it would be the first to enter Germany if unchallenged. A successful counterattack in Lorraine would also at least delay the joining of the 12th Army Group with the forces advancing up the Loire from southern France. In the coming weeks, the 3rd Army would go up against elements of eighteen German divisions, including a half-dozen Panzer and Panzer Grenadier. The 11th Panzer, tempered on the Russian front, proved such a master of riposte and counterattack that it earned the nickname “Fire Department.” Some of the others were still recovering from Normandy. The infantry’s quality also varied, but none of the German divisions would prove walkovers.
The second problem confronting the 3rd Army was fatigue. The drive across France had worn out divisions, generals, and privates alike. The experience of World War I had made the Army strongly committed to minimizing losses by all possible means. Casualties had nevertheless been unexpectedly heavy in the infantry—so heavy in fact that some rifle companies had turned more than 100 percent. From Omaha Beach to V-E day, GIs proved able to improvise and fight their way out of the tightest of situations, even those of their own making. The Army system did not always help them. The U.S. replacement system, based on feeding individuals forward, meant too often that men who had been shuttled anonymously from replacement depot to replacement depot found themselves still anonymous in front-line foxholes. Leadership correspondingly tended to be personal and from the front, with predictably heavy casualties among company officers and sergeants: the men most difficult to replace.
Senior officers also found their judgment affected by stress. Command relationships at all levels soured as what might have been manageable tensions escalated into full-blown feuds. Patton, for all his fire-eating reputation, had a light hand when considering relieving a subordinate for cause. “Wholesale beheadings,” of the kind familiar in the airborne divisions and increasingly in Hodges’s 1st Army, in Patton’s mind created “fear and lack of self-confidence.” He preferred to stick with an inexperienced man, giving him time to find his feet, and to consider lapses on the part of his veterans as part of the “fog and friction” inherent in war. But by the end of November, the physical and emotional states of John Wood and his corps commander Manton Eddy had generated a confrontation sufficiently bitter that Patton was constrained to relieve Wood, the junior, on the ostensible grounds of fatigue and send him home despite his brilliant record. Eddy’s blood pressure continued to rise until his own relief in April 1945.
Critics, and Wood himself, argue that Patton made a bad choice. Eddy, nervous, pedestrian, was less qualified for corps command than the general Liddell Hart called “the American Rommel.” Though he considered Wood “one of my best friends” and deeply admired him as a battle captain, Patton also questioned Wood’s potential above the division level. Wood was intellectually arrogant and unwilling to compromise. Whether he could handle a complex combined-arms formation like a corps in a technical sense was less important than whether he could work harmoniously with subordinates and superiors who did not match his capacities or share his approaches. In the end, Patton swung the axe with no sense of irony about a decision whose rationales were no less applicable to him.
The effects of fatigue were exacerbated by a crisis in technologies. The U.S. Army’s institutional self-image in World War II was as the best equipped in the world. Comprehensively that may have been so. But when Eisenhower evaluated the machines most important to the ground war, his list included the C-47 transport, the DUKW amphibious truck, the two-and-a-half-ton truck, and the jeep—not a weapons system among them. American infantrymen were armed with individual weapons, the Garand and the Browning Automatic Rifle, designed to fit a tactical doctrine emphasizing individual marksmanship as opposed to fire power. American tankers in Europe would repeatedly seen a half-dozen and more of their Shermans disabled at long range by a single German heavy tank. The Germans’ grim nickname for the gasoline-engined version of the Sherman was “Tommy cooker”: a recognition of its propensity for bursting into flame before the crew could get out.
Even before the end of the North African campaign, U.S. designers began work on a new gun for the Sherman, a 76- millimeter design primarily designed to engage tanks with armor-piercing rounds rather than destroy obstacles with high explosives. Design of a heavy tank with a heavy gun received correspondingly limited priority. The question was not whether U.S. factories could retool to produce a heavy-tank successor to the Sherman. The issue instead was whether such a changeover represented the best use of material and technical resources, and whether anyone with a say in the matter wanted such a tank in the first place. In North Africa, then in Sicily and Italy, American tankers had regularly encountered not merely up-gunned Mark IV’s but Panthers and Tigers, the former with a 75-millimeter high-velocity gun even more deadly to tanks than the vaunted 88. On the whole, the Shermans had coped—-not perfectly, but they had coped, and that was enough. The 76-millimeter gun seemed an adequate response to the German innovations.
Patton was not involved in tank development or production even before he left the United States for Operation Torch. His technological awareness correspondingly atrophied. In preinvasion conversations with Liddle-Hart, Patton echoed conventional American wisdom in expressing his preference for light tanks in quantity as opposed to fewer and larger ones. The Sherman, he said, was invincible given suitable terrain and skilled crews. He was correspondingly unenthusiastic about the design that would become the M-26. Weighing 48 tons, with a 90-millimeter gun and much thicker armor than the Sherman, it was a medium/heavy tank along the lines of the Panther. It could be expected to have all the bugs and teething troubles inherent in a new design. It was also slower and required more fuel than the Sherman. For Patton, with his understanding of armor as an instrument of exploitation and his belief that tanks should engage tanks only in exceptional situations, versus tank, the M-26 at best fell into the category of “nice to have”—certainly nothing he was willing to encourage or promote. Similarly, no 76-millimeter Shermans were assigned to the 3rd Army before it went to France.
In the first weeks after D-day, in the close terrain of Normandy’s bocage, German tanks proved so formidable even in small numbers that the 1st U.S. Army ran a series of tests to determine exactly what would reliably knock out a Panther. The 76-millimeter gun was not merely ineffective but dangerous, as overconfident crews learned to their cost that the gun’s round was more likely to glance off than pierce the frontal armor of German tanks. As for the tank destroyers, the M-10 soldiered on with the 3-inch gun. The new M-18 Hellcat, introduced in late 1943, could make the incredible top speed of 55 miles per hour, but carried the same 76-millimeter gun as the rearmed Sherman.
U.S. crew losses mounted; U.S. crew morale declined. Omar Bradley and then Dwight Eisenhower were sufficiently disconcerted that Eisenhower contacted Chief of Staff George Marshall demanding that tanks and tank destroyers with 90-millimeter guns be made available as soon as possible. As early as December 1942, a 90-millimeter gun had been experimentally mounted on a modified M-10 tank destroyer chassis. The new vehicle, the M-36, went into production—in April 1944! By the fall of 1943, the Army possessed, in inventory and on order, 11,500 tank destroyers. It had a unit requirement for fewer than 3,000. But tank destroyer doctrine considered a heavy gun an example of overkill until the weeks after D-day made believers. As for the M-26, not until May 1944 was the original order of 50 prototypes completed. The War Department wanted to begin a small production run in the summer of 1944. In the face of the general indifference among senior ranks typified by Patton, the first M-26 was not standardized until March 1945. Fewer than 1,400 had rolled off the line by the end of the war in Europe. Two hundred were issued to armored units, thirty of them to one of Patton’s divisions in April.
In contrast, beginning in 1943, the German army introduced another wave of “platoon technologies” that reshaped the tactical battlefield. The MG 42 light machine gun, with its high cyclic rate of fire, the various models of assault rifles, the man-portable antitank rockets, the Panzerfaust and the Panzerschreck, lifted the German infantryman to what might be called a “post-modern” level the rest of the world’s footsoldiers would not reach for thirty years. In their developed versions, the Panther and Tiger tanks, with their high-velocity guns and well-sloped armor, their state-of-the-art optical and radio equipment, differed essentially from their predecessors of 1940 in favoring individual—or crew—virtu, arguably even at the expense of higher tactical effectiveness.
These innovative weapons systems were originally intended to redress strategic and grand-strategic imbalances. Instead, their qualities and limitations proved ideal for the long fighting retreat toward Germany. They proved ideal as well to enhance significantly exponentially the fighting power of the Reich’s new-model warriors, not least by appealing to that fighting power’s vitalist aspects. The MG 42 might devour ammunition and use up barrels—but nothing beat “Hitler’s buzz saw” for stopping enemy infantry in its tracks. Rocket launchers were an equalizer in the face of what seemed—and often were—overwhelming numbers of Allied tanks. German tank crews knew and cursed the shortcomings of their new mounts: the unreliable engines and the refractory suspensions, the optics that were as fragile as they were precise. But the firepower and the protection of the Tigers and Panthers time and again gave them “battlespace dominance” against long odds. The effectiveness of Wehrmacht “platoon technology” meant, moreover, that not everyone had to be a hero. At the last ditch, a Tiger’s five-man crew, three infantrymen with an MG 42, a single Landser with a Panzerfaust, could do a good deal of killing before going down themselves—often in what seemed a kind of exaltation that less-inspired witnesses, Allied and German, described as fanaticism or Blutrausch.
The final challenge confronting the 3rd Army was geography. During the sweep across France, Patton had hundreds of miles to play with. He was able to seek and exploit German weaknesses on all four points of the compass. As the 3rd Army closed up into Lorraine and the German frontier, it was increasingly sandwiched between the 1st Army on its left and the 7th Army advancing from the south. Opportunities for operational-level thrusts were restricted by Army and Army group boundaries even Patton could not violate at random. Eisenhower and Bradley highlighted the changing conditions by transferring the XV Corps to the 7th Army. Bradley was pleased to be rid of the logistical burden and give the 7th Army a boost. Patton mourned the loss of this experienced corps and its commander, Haislip, who had shown himself so proficient in mobile operations.
The Lorraine plateau, surrounded by natural barriers, with its rivers running north-south and the successive lines of high ground that had shaped tactics in earlier wars, did not lend itself to overrunning or bypassing by armored forces even without the overlapping networks of man-made fortifications that crisscrossed the region. The 3rd Army required more than 3 months and paid 50,000 casualties for the region. The operation was the sternest test of Patton’s generalship during the war. Constant rain, heralding one of the worst winters in years, turned fields into glutinous mud and highlighted the cross-country limitations of the Shermans, with their narrow tracks. “I hope,” wrote Patton, “that in the final settlement of the war, the Germans retain Lorraine. I can imagine no greater burden than to be the owner of this nasty country where it rains every day and where the whole wealth of the people consists in assorted manure piles.”
In the first days of September, the XII and XX Corps both failed initially to get across the Moselle north of Nancy. Wood’s 4th Armored carried the weight of the limited exploitation when the river line was eventually breached, and Nancy fell in mid-September after what Patton called “as bitter and protracted fighting as I have ever encountered.” He did not expect to do “any broken field running till I cross the next river”—a pleasure the Germans proposed to deny him. On September 18, the 5th Panzer Army under Hasso von Manteuffel launched Hitler’s long-projected counterattack, structured along the lines of the ripostes at which the Germans had become so expert in Russia. This was the first time Patton’s army had faced one of these strokes on a large scale. In some of the heaviest armored fighting since Normandy, “Tiger Jack” Wood took advantage of the prevailing fog to bring the 4th Armored Division to close quarters with the Panthers. His subordinates, including such future Army luminaries as Bruce Clarke and Creighton Abrams, further reduced by sophisticated tactical maneuvering the advantage of superior German guns and armor—Patton’s tank units were still almost entirely equipped with 75-millimeter Shermans. Losses on both sides were heavy, particularly in some of the newly organized German units. Manteuffel was ordered to push on regardless. The Americans held around, claiming a kill ratio of ten to one; and on September 29, Manteuffel’s superiors finally ordered him to stand down the troops and tanks he had left.
Throughout the fighting, Patton had been primarily concerned with the consequences of the German attack for the breakthrough to the Rhine he expected to achieve. On September 22, his fears were confirmed—but from a different quarter, as Eisenhower informed Bradley that the British advance toward the Ruhr would continue to have priority for supplies. “Bradley and I would like to go to China and serve under Admiral Nimitz,” Patton recorded—that last, for an Army officer, the supreme expression of disgust! As for the 12th Army Group, the 1st Army would continue supporting Montgomery’s right. The rest—meaning the 3rd Army—“would take no more aggressive action than that permitted by the maintenance situation after the full requirements of the main effort have been met.”
Even Patton could not mistake that language. As the 21st Army Group hammered vainly into fierce resistance on the lower Rhine, the 3rd Army underwent its “October pause” while Patton chafed. In his frustration, he overlooked the 3rd Army’s remarkable success in once more diminishing High Command West’s revitalized capacity to conduct mobile operations at anything but sector levels. Not until December would the German capacity for strategic maneuver in the west be restored.
Patton had also, albeit involuntarily, repaid Montgomery for attracting German reserves and facilitating the U.S. breakout at St. Lo. Now it was the 3rd Army whose hard-driving advance, across the Moselle, drew Hitler’s attention and the bulk of the Panzers into Lorraine—and away from the 21st Army Group’s drive through Holland toward the Ruhr. Had they been available along Hell’s Highway, Operation Market-Garden might well have gone into the books as a disaster instead of an embarrassment.
“Hold present position until supply situation permits resumption of the offensive,” ran Patton’s new direct orders. He was not inclined to take then literally. As part of a sequence of local attacks designed to improve the 3rd Army’s position, the 5th Infantry Division clawed into Fort Driant on the outskirts of Metz in early October. That it did not hold should not have been surprising. Metz had been regarded since the sixteenth century as a key to the frontier zone developing between France and Germany. The fortress system begun by the Germans after 1871 and developed by the French after 1918 was designed to absorb an entire field army. The individual works were designed to resist bombardment above even Great War scales. For the sake of mobility and to save shipping tonnage, the U.S. Army had gone to war with limited numbers of heavy guns. Air strikes eventually proved vital to the reduction of Metz, but XIX TAC was spread thin, and the weather restricted the number of sorties that could be mounted. Commanders were forced to rely on the tactical skill of their infantry—which did not extend to conquering such formidable defenses in what amounted to hand-to-hand combat.
Motivation had less to do with that than training—something Patton, generally considered a master trainer, should have recognized. To a degree, he was distracted by vanity, unwilling to see the 3rd Army accept even a minor defeat. He was engaged as well by the prospect of capturing a world-renowned fortress by assault. But Patton’s ultimate reason for insisting Metz must fall was his belief that he now lacked the maneuvering room to leave a strongly defended fortress in the rear of his next offensive. On October 4, Patton ordered the Fort Driant attack pushed home “if it took every man in the XX Corps.” In practice, he proved too much the cavalryman to throw away lives against concrete. A week later, he noted the Driant operation was “. . . going sour. We will have to pull out.” He informed Bradley that the glory of taking the fort was not worth the losses its capture would entail. Bradley agreed. By October 13, the last of the 5th Division’s troops had withdrawn, and the XX Corps began planning the capture of Metz, Patton style—by indirection.
Compared to his counterparts in Allied command at such places as Monte Cassino and the Huertgen Forest, Patton was a quick study. His learning curve was rendered steeper by his still-regular practice of seeing for himself—a particularly sharp contrast to Huertgen, where the absence of senior officers was sufficiently noteworthy to remain something of a scandal among historians of the operation. Noteworthy, too, for those who argue Patton discouraged staff work in favor of action, is the precision of the XX Corps’s plan: so detailed that maps showed every house in Metz known to be occupied by the Germans. Weather and logistics, however, continued to impose delays. Patton’s temper grew worse. So, arguably, did his judgment. When XX Corps commander Major General Walton Walker had continued nibbling at the Metz defenses, Patton called him off. Now he began ordering other limited attacks, justifying them on the grounds of “blooding” newly arrived divisions by giving them combat experience on a small scale. Too often the attrition was on the wrong side of the ledger. “For God’s sake, George, lay off” was Bradley’s reaction. Patton, in turn, informed Bradley that he could mount an army-scale offensive on two days’ notice and reach the West Wall in two days more.
The final version of his plan involved the XII Corps swinging up from the south and connecting with a northern pincer provided by the III Corps, freshly transferred from the 1st Army, to isolate and contain Metz. The XX Corps would take Metz itself—according to Walker, by infiltration tactics instead of assaulting the forts directly. As Patton supervised the training of Walker’s infantry in antifortress training conducted against old pillboxes, the 3rd Army’s heavy artillery was significantly reinforced. Weyland, whose XIX TAC had been concentrating on interdiction missions, cooperated with Patton’s staff in developing a plan for a coordinated series of bomber and fighter-bomber strikes in the battle zone.
As preparation proceeded, Patton focused his fretting. Though his ultimate intention was to establish bridgeheads across the Rhine, he seems to have recognized that weather, terrain, and the quality of the German resistance combined to impel a short-yardage approach, at least in the initial stages. He spent increasing amounts of time with his staff officers, working out details. “Touring France was a catch-as-catch-can performance, where we had to keep going to maintain our initial advantage,” he noted. “In [the Metz offensive] we had to start moving from an initial disadvantage.” It was a disadvantage not to be overcome by inspired improvisation, and the 3rd Army headquarters rose well to the occasion.
The 3rd Army’s attack jumped off on November 8. The rain was heavy; the rivers and streams were high and running fast. The night before, Eddy and the 6th Armored division’s Robert Grow recommended postponement. Patton insisted the attack would go in and gave Eddy the chance to name his successor if he disagreed. Unable to sleep, he took up a book that included a description of a battle fought in similar weather. It was Rommel’s Infantry Attacks and reassured Patton that “if the Germans could do it, I could.”
The heaviest artillery bombardment in the 3rd Army’s history opened the proceedings, and XIX TAC made the most of breaks in the foggy, rainy weather, itself taking heavy losses from flak. Manton Eddy’s XII Corps included two of the best armored divisions in the ETO: Wood’s 4th and Grow’s 6th. Patton’s intention, reflected in Eddy’s orders, was that they take the lead as soon as possible and strike for the Rhine, bypassing pockets of resistance in the way made familiar by the race across France. Wood was less sanguine, denying that he entertained “illusions about any rapid advance.”
Some critics charge Eddy with misunderstanding the capabilities of armor, fighting his armored divisions by combat commands instead of employing them as a concentrated striking force. Others focus on professional and personal disconnections between infantryman Eddy and the tankers Wood and Grow. The official historian accurately notes that mud negated a plan based on surprise and speed. Rain continued to swell watercourses and wash away bridges. Mines, many of them new designs based on wood or plastic and immune to detectors, took a heavy toll in casualties and tactical initiative. The cold and wet exacted a parallel cost in respiratory diseases, and even more in trench foot. Dry socks became no less important than gasoline in maintaining the pace of an advance that from the beginning was channeled along a relatively limited number of reliably hard-surfaced roads.
The best explanations for the 3rd Army’s floundering come from the other side of the battle line, beginning with the new commander of Army Group G, which completed its retreat from southern France by assuming responsibility for the western front’s southern sector. Hermann Balck, son of one of Germany’s best-known tactical theorists, was a master of applied tactics and a charismatic leader, six times wounded. The advancing Americans encountered not the fragmentary last stands of the sweep across France, but a sophisticated resistance initially based on mines, roadblocks, and determined small units, then shaped by the 11th Panzer Division, whose mobile defense based on company-strength tank-infantry teams was a model of an economy of force operation. The apparently limited strength of the opposition encouraged the American armored divisions to fight exactly the kind of battle least suited to their capacities: a head-on fight against a flexible defense. It was retiarus against secutor, and the 11th Panzer, with its Russian experience of cape-and-sword tactics, inflicted heavy casualties on Patton’s elite tankers in the first days of the offensive.
Metz was another bone in the 3rd Army’s throat. Not until November 14 was Walker sufficiently satisfied at the progress of the encirclement that he began the final attack Hitler had ordered Metz defended as a fortress: no retreat and no surrender. The commander, who had done the trick twice on the eastern front, hoped to escape with his garrison at the last minute. He got most of his men out before falling wounded into American hands on the 21st; but not until November 25 was the city sufficiently under control for Patton to make a ceremonial entrance. “Your deeds . . . will fill pages of history for a thousand years,” he informed the troops he reviewed in the city. A few days earlier, visiting a hospital, Patton told a wounded man the headlines might read “Patton Took Metz,” but that was “a goddamn lie. You and your buddies are the ones who actually took Metz.”
Rhetoric could not dry out the fields of Lorraine or clear the sky over them. Patton sought to engage a Higher Power, asking the senior army chaplain if he had a good prayer for weather. The padre’s request to grant fair weather for battle remained unmet. By the end of November, it was clear that the fighting in Lorraine had devolved to a level not merely of corps and divisions, but regiments and battalions. For a few days after the fall of Metz, Walker’s XX Corps drove forward into the rolling country west of the Sarre River. Then it encountered another elastic defensive system anchored by Panzer Lehr Division, refreshed since its hammering in Normandy and still commanded by the hard-charging Bayerlein. In Eddy’s sector, the 11th Panzer orchestrated a similar holding action.
Progress, in Patton’s words, was “not very brilliant.” “I believe that the enemy has nearly reached his breaking point,” he wrote in a letter of December 5. “As a matter of fact, we are stretched pretty thin ourselves.” Despite all the negatives, on December 3, the first elements of the 3rd Army finally moved into the Reich’s West Wall. For Patton, the next step was to the Saar and forward to a Rhine River still seventy miles away. Within days, however, the German Ardennes offensive would begin a new chapter in the history of the 3rd Army and its commander.
By comparison with the drive across France, and by comparison with his own concepts of generalship, Patton is open to charges of losing his grip on the latter stages of the Lorraine campaign. His German opponents suggested Metz could have been taken in half the time the 3rd Army required. While Patton continued, and indeed increased, his presence at front-line headquarters, he did not seek to impose his will to increase the pace of the advance. Nor did his overall plan emphasize generating and maintaining momentum to the degree of its predecessors and successors. Even his complaints about Bradley, Eisenhower, and Montgomery seem flat and lifeless. When informed that “Patton for President” clubs would soon be forming in the States, he replied that like General Sherman, he would neither run if nominated nor serve if elected. When the war was over, Patton continued, he intended to remove his insignia but would continue to wear his short coat—“so that everyone can kiss my ass.”
George Patton, in short, was copping an attitude. But his moroseness was a consequence of his situational awareness. Patton considered himself still on trial as the 3rd Army’s commander. Being relieved was by autumn of less concern than being marginalized: finding himself in a position where his ideas and his presence carried no weight in the councils of war that to a significant degree determined operational policy in both the 12th Army Group and SHAEF. Patton also understood that the old Army mantra, “Shut up and soldier,” applied to generals as well as privates, especially when the going became as rough as it did on the French frontier in the autumn of 1944.
As winter set in, trench foot and respiratory sickness increased their toll. Infantry strength fell at alarming rates. Ninety percent of the XII Corps’s casualties in November wore the crossed rifles. “We are closely approaching a 40 percent shortage in each rifle company,” Patton noted in early December. In some veteran divisions like the 95th, the figure was closer to half. Armored divisions, already weak in organic infantry, were growing seriously unbalanced as replacement depots emptied. One of the 4th Armored’s battalions was down to 160 men, another to 126, of their authorized thousand. Patton fumed at Eisenhower for letting himself be caught short of men. He wrote of combing out headquarters and rear echelons, but knew better than to believe cursorily retrained clerks and truck drivers were able to do much more than swell casualty lists.
Patton was a horseman and knew better than to drive the most willing mount against an impassable obstacle. In the autumn of 1944, logistics, terrain, fatigue, command policies, and not least the Germans combined in a barrier that constrained him to recast, albeit temporarily, his approach to war. That he was uncomfortable in his new operational skin, that he made decisions hindsight highlights as questionable and worse, should come as no surprise. Considered from an alternative perspective, Patton showed a situational awareness, a flexibility, sufficiently remarkable among senior army officers in the European theater that it merits consideration as unique.
Patton in Lorraine clearly was not at his best in conditions unfavorable to his style of command. War, however, resembles baseball in that the ultimate test of a pitcher’s ability is whether he “knows how to pitch”—that is, whether he can win on those inevitable days when he lacks his “good stuff.” In Lorraine, Patton showed that he could perform competently under unfavorable circumstances. In a zero-defects model, Patton’s scores may be low. In the real world where war is fought, he enhanced significantly his claim to greatness.
Patton was not so preoccupied with his own sector that he lost interest in the rest of the front. As his requests for more divisions were turned down time and again, he grasped more fully than his colleagues the fundamental problem the ninety-division army posed to Eisenhower’s strategy. Given the supreme commander’s commitment to a continuous front, weak spots must inevitably emerge. The obvious one in the American sector was in the Ardennes Forest, where the VIII Corps, now assigned to the 1st Army, controlled a static sector manned by a mix of green divisions and veteran outfits burned out in the Huertgen Forest. “It is highly probable that the Germans are building up east of them,” Patton noted on November 24. Higher headquarters were more sanguine, despite increasing evidence from ULTRA as well as more conventional intelligence sources that the German High Command was coordinating a concentration that by mid-December gave the Ardennes sector a three-to-one advantage in men and a two-to-one advantage in tanks.
Hitler’s intention, shared and underwritten by High Command West, was to replicate the success of 1940 by striking through the Ardennes for Antwerp. The port’s capture would both create a logistic crisis for the Allies and divide the British from the Americans, opening the way to their defeat in detail and—just possibly—to a decisive falling-out between partners whose squabbling, egalitarian relationship was never really understood by German strategic planners who believed in client systems rather than alliances.
That the Allies still had absolute control of the air over the front, or that German fuel supplies were about enough to get their tanks halfway to Antwerp, did not concern the Fuehrer. Nor were his generals excessively disturbed. The planners of High Command West preferred in principle a more limited operation but were never able to convince even themselves why Germany’s last reserves should be used that way. What was to be gained, except a drawn-out endgame? At least the West was geographically small enough to offer something like a strategic objective. The eastern front presented only the prospect of a second Kursk, with the last of the Panzers feeding themselves into a Russian meat grinder fifty or seventy miles east of the existing front line. And if Operation Watch on the Rhine proved instead a Twilight of the Gods, then it would at least be a virtuoso performance as far as the army’s professionals and the zealots of the SS could make it.
The German attack began before dawn on December 16. From the beginning, its pace was slowed by stubborn American resistance—the kind of tactical triumphs critics of U.S. “fighting power” tend to assert lay outside the American soldier’s capacities. Ironically, the initial successes of the troops on the ground delayed the 1st Army, 12th Army Group, and SHAEF in developing an understanding of what was happening. Initially, Bradley and Hodges believed it a local counterattack to disrupt the 1st Army’s drive through the Huertgen Forest. Eisenhower realized it was more than a spoiling attack, but (the ninety-division gamble again) had no reserves to send in except two U.S. airborne divisions, both badly mauled in the fighting for Arnhem.
Patton’s G-2 had been anticipating trouble in the Ardennes for weeks, and Patton was regularly briefed on the growing German buildup. The plans that emerged from the 3rd Army headquarters for dealing with the contingency of a major offensive were themselves offensive. As early as the morning of December 17, Patton called “the thing in the north . . . the real McCoy” and also an opportunity to finish the war. The attack reminded him of the German offensive of March 1918, and like it nothing would be left—if the battle were managed properly. If we roll with the punch, Patton’s operations officer (G-3) declared, in a week it should be possible to cut off the main German force west of the Rhine. “That isn’t the way those gentlemen up north fight,” Patton relied.
The night before Bradley had called Patton—reluctantly—and asked him to send an armored division north, Patton believed this kind of piecemeal commitment played into the German hands, but concluded Bradley was in bigger trouble than he could discuss over the phone. On December 18, Bradley requested Patton and his senior staff officers to report to Army group headquarters. When they arrived the next day, Bradley showed Patton on a large-scale map that the German penetration was much larger than Patton had thought, and was expanding steadily as pockets of American resistance were broken. The broad outlines of a response were nevertheless in place: first contain the offensive, then control and defeat it. What, Bradley asked, could the 3rd Army contribute?
In one sense, the question was rhetorical. The discussion had made clear that the 3rd Army was expected to send more divisions north, at the price of abandoning its offensive into Germany. Yet in the worst crisis of the campaign, Bradley did not approach Patton with orders. One account has him reluctant to increase his burdens by sparking an argument. In the past six months, however, Bradley had come to understand Patton better than he had in Tunisia and Sicily, as someone most effective driven with a loose rein. “I feel you won’t like what we are going to do, but I fear it is necessary,” were Bradley’s words.
Patton’s response was to guarantee to send a division, the 4th Armored, north starting at midnight, a second the next morning, and a third within twenty-four hours if necessary—cross-country in the dead of winter. Bradley not only believed him, but the next morning phoned that the situation had worsened, asked for the redeployment to be stepped up, and ordered Patton to report to Verdun the next day for a conference with Eisenhower and his principal subordinates.
Patton spent the early morning of the 19th with his staff officers and corps commanders, explaining and outlining his plan for turning north into the Ardennes on any of three possible road axes, and enjoining rapid movement once the orders were issued. By then, he had concluded that the best way to deal with the German offensive in the long term involved allowing it to keep on going, to a depth of forty or fifty miles, then drive into the base of the now-developed salient and cut it off. It was a high-risk solution, demanding cast-iron nerve at command levels. It was also a potential war-ender. And it was a galvanic shock to the officers who assembled at Verdun. None of them brought specific plans. Most of them feared the worst. Even Eisenhower’s characteristic bonhomie seemed forced. When he described the situation as “one of opportunity for us, and not of disaster,” Patton burst out, “Let’s have the guts to let the sons of bitches go all the way to Paris. Then we’ll really cut ’em up and chew ’em up!” The room burst into laughter, and Eisenhower replied “George, that’s fine.”
The Supreme Commander’s intentions were nevertheless more modest: to contain the German offensive behind the Meuse River, then counterattack. When Eisenhower told Patton he wanted him to command the operation, “under Bradley’s supervision, of course,” he was recognizing the 12th Army Group’s loss of touch with its subordinate headquarters and conceding as well that the 1st Army headquarters would be doing well to avoid disaster on its immediate front. Eisenhower wanted a strong counterattack: at least six divisions.“When can you attack?” Patton replied, “On the morning of the 21st, with three divisions.” Eisenhower, thinking this was more of Georgie’s hyperbole at a most inopportune time, told him, “Don’t be fatuous.” There was laughter from other quarters as well, especially among the British officers present. But Patton’s aide noticed “a stir, a shuffling of feet . . . through the room excitement leaped like a flame.”
Patton stepped to the map and used a cigar to illustrate his intentions: “The Kraut’s stuck his head in a meatgrinder. And this time I’ve got hold of the handle.” Thanks in good part to the previous work of his staff, Patton came to the conference with more than a strategic generalization. He had specific plans for switching the 3rd Army’s axis ninety degrees, specific replies to questions and criticisms. When Eisenhower questioned whether three divisions were enough, Patton answered that waiting for more would cost the advantage of surprise but agreed to mount a larger attack in six days. Within an hour, all was settled: the divisions to be used, their objectives, the new army boundaries that had the 7th Army taking over much of the 3rd’s old front. As the conference broke up, Eisenhower, recently promoted to General of the Army, remarked, “Every time I get a new star I get attacked.” “And every time you get attacked, I pull you out,” was Patton’s rejoinder.
The Verdun conference is frequently described as Patton’s finest military hour, the culmination of a thirty-year career as a thinking soldier, the justification of all of Eisenhower’s forbearance. It was all those things. But as Russell Weigley reminds us, other generals had accomplished similar shifts in direction and commitment against competent opposition. The difference at Verdun was that Patton was, to borrow his own phrasing from another context, “The only son of a bitch around here who knows what he’s trying to do.” Kipling’s words remain appropriate: “If you can keep your head when all around you are losing theirs—.”
The next few days were also a triumph of teamwork. Before leaving Verdun, Patton phoned his headquarters: the 4th Armored and 26th Infantry Divisions to Arlon; the 80th Infantry and 3rd Army headquarters to Luxembourg. Patton’s colleagues had consistently low-rated the 3rd Army’s staff as “a mediocre bunch.” In fact, the staff had developed since the breakout into exactly the kind of organization Patton wanted: one able to rise to occasions and handle emergencies. Minor problems of traffic control and command authority did not hinder the ninety-degree turn: another indication of Patton’s willingness to give his subordinates rope that they could turn into either a lifeline or a hangman’s noose.
Patton himself took the field as a one-man headquarters—two if his driver is counted. On a single day, he cheerfully wrote to Bea, “I visited seven divisions and regrouped an army alone . . . Destiny sent for me in a hurry when things got tight. Perhaps God saved me for this effort.” His first order read, “Everyone in this army must understand that we are not fighting this battle in any half-cocked manner. It’s either root hog—or die.” The corps headquarters controlling the advance, and its general, were new to the 3rd Army, having joined only in October. As a consequence, Patton kept much tighter control over the details of the attack than was usual. He prescribed in detail the tactics to be employed by the 4th Armored Division. His high-pitched voice was heard everywhere, exhorting and inspiring. “This will get the bastards out of their holes so we can kill all of ’em,” he encouraged his corps staffs. “When one attacks, it is the enemy who has to worry,” he reminded himself. And within forty-eight hours, after a hundred-mile march over largely secondary roads in snow, fog, and bitter cold, three divisions were in place to mount the first counterattack of the Ardennes campaign.
Patton initially still entertained some hope of allowing the Germans to continue overextending themselves, even considering abandoning Bastogne to lure them deeper into Belgium. But Troy Middleton, whose VIII Corps was making the principal fight in the Ardennes, was an old friend whose competence Patton respected. On the afternoon of December 20, Middleton advised Patton to take a close look at the map. With six roads converging on it, Bastogne was too important for the Americans to abandon or the Germans to bypass. Patton agreed, and his attack’s first objective became the relief of the Belgian market town and its garrison, the 101st Airborne Division’s “band of brothers.”
“Drive like hell!” Patton exhorted at his final meeting before the offensive. But the twenty-mile breadth of the American front acted as a check on a single massive thrust toward Bastogne. Elements of the 4th Armored, a company each of tanks and infantry, actually entered the town on December 20, only to be ordered out again by the division’s new commander, Major General Hugh Gaffey, whose main body was strung out along country roads in a snowstorm, its path barred by elite German paratroopers. German counterattacks combined with the weather to frustrate hopes of relieving Bastogne by Christmas. By now, Patton was for practical purposes running the III Corps directly, and he forced the pace to the limit. When the 4th Armored was pushed back, Patton blamed himself for insisting around-the-clock attacks—“. . . all right on the first or second day of the battle . . . but after that the men get tired.” “With a little luck I will put on a more daring operation just after Xmas,” he wrote to Bea on the 22nd.
By Christmas the worst was over—at least in hindsight. The determination and the tactical skill of the Americans in the offensive’s path; Patton’s military broken-field running; and not least a break in the weather that enabled the C-47s and the fighter-bombers to reassert control of the sector’s air space, had shifted the initiative to the Allied side of the line. “Lovely weather for killing Germans,” Patton noted on Christmas Day. He spent most of it visiting front-line units, a pattern he continued throughout the fighting. Despite the German insertion of special operations forces with a mission of killing senior officers, Patton rode in an open armored jeep, a parka or overcoat his only concession to the biting cold. His face was regularly frostbitten. When strafed by an American plane, he took refuge in a ditch like any high private. Patton’s purpose was to be seen and to see; word of his presence spread wherever he went. Even the two pistols he habitually carried did not seem as much of an affectation in the looming forests of the Ardennes as they might appear on maneuvers. Contrary to legend, these were ivory-handled: Patton insisted in and out of season that no one but a bawdyhouse pimp would carry a pearl-handled sidearm. Besides, he considered pearl “unlucky.”
Patton, for good and ill, was still Patton. On one occasion, he allegedly was talking with a number of stragglers from units initially overrun by the Germans when he singled out one man, sulfurously denounced him as a coward, and ordered him arrested. The terrified soldier was later released—again on Patton’s orders. The incident remained buried in the files; doctors and reporters had other matters occupying their attention in the winter of 1944. Army cartoonist Bill Mauldin, the ETO’s successor to Ernie Pyle as celebrant of the common soldier, whose admiration for Bradley extended to contributing a foreword to his memoirs, responded to a personally administered tongue-lashing with what remains among the more perceptive summaries of Patton. “If you’re a leader, you don’t push wet spaghetti, you pull it . . . Patton understood. . . . The stupid bastard was crazy . . . but I certainly respected his theories and the techniques he used to get his men out of their foxholes.”
Years later another soldier told Beatrice of a miserable late afternoon: “We [were] stuck in the snow. He yelled at us to get out and push, and first I knew, there was General Patton pushing right alongside of me. Sure I knew him; he never asked a man to do what he wouldn’t do himself.” A sergeant in a forward outpost at St. Vith, where the German pressure was greatest, heard that the 3rd Army was attacking. “That’s good news,” he replied. “If Georgie’s coming, we’ve got it made.” On December 30, in an editorial titled “Patton of Course” the Washington Post said, “It has become a sort of unwritten rule in this war that when there is a fire to be put out, it is Patton who jumps into his boots . . . This is the same Patton who has a number of indiscretions on his record, but who has again and again demonstrated that when a jam develops he is the one who is called upon to break it.” The Army and the country had come a long way from Tunisia and Sicily.
On December 26, the 4th Armored broke into Bastogne to stay. Its tanks that night escorted in a forty-truck supply train and a convoy of seventy ambulances: grim evidence of the Airborne’s sacrifices. “[T]he outstanding achievement of the war,” Patton bragged to Bea. To the correspondents who flocked to the town after the shooting stopped, he urged remembrance of “the men who drove up that bowling alley out there from Arlon.” In his conversations and correspondence, he urged an immediate counterattack with every available division and dismissed Montgomery, who had been given temporary command of Allied forces north of the breakthrough, as “a tired little fart.”
Patton argued to Bradley and Eisenhower for deep-penetration envelopments by the 3rd Army south of the Bulge and the 1st to its north. Bradley was reluctant; Hodges complained the roads in his sector would not support such an operation. Eisenhower no less than Patton believed the German salient offered a major opportunity: the annihilation of the German army west of the Rhine. “We must be prepared to use everything consistent with minimum security requirements to accomplish their destruction,” he wrote to Montgomery on December 29.
When it came to a decision, however, he shared the cautious perspective of Bradley, Hodges, and not least Montgomery, opting to cut the salient at the waist. The Supreme Commander intended that the 1st and 3rd Armies link up inside the Bulge, then drive side by side through the Eifel toward Bonn and the Rhine. The next and final stage of the operation would be a long joint thrust across Germany through the open ground from Frankfurt to Kassel, and a meeting with the Russians. Montgomery, retaining the 9th U.S. Army to bulk up his army group, would simultaneously stage his own drive into and across Germany north of the Ruhr.
Eisenhower’s decision to strike the salient’s middle reflected his belief that Patton’s proposal was too risky for a small force and required too much time to concentrate a large one. At the same time, he wanted Patton to do the heavy work of reducing the Bulge. Neither Hodges nor Bradley stood especially high in the Supreme Commander’s standing after their performances in December, while Montgomery’s Yank-baiting, deliberate and otherwise, was reaching a point where his relief seemed a distinct possibility. The Germans fought with desperate courage and consummate skill to hold the shoulder of the salient by keeping pressure on Bastogne. They were helped in Patton’s sector by the nature of his attack. Like its immediate predecessor, it was on a broad front, twenty to twenty-five miles, and correspondingly tended to devolve into a series of small-scale encounter battles: the sort of fighting in which the Germans excelled.
“All my troops are just where they should be,” Patton noted on New Year’s Day. “So if we lose it will be due to better fighting on the part of the enemy . . . not to any mistakes which I have made.” Patton, like every other senior U.S. general in the ETO, nevertheless had to address an unexpected consequence of the “ninety-division gamble”: the regular necessity for using armored and airborne divisions in the same way as infantry divisions, despite their shortcomings in staying power. The paratroopers suffered disproportionate casualties in the Ardennes due to their lack of armor and artillery. Armored divisions, with only three battalions of infantry, eroded no less rapidly. Only the 6th Armored Division, “better than the 4th only without the PR,” according to its veterans, achieved anything like a breakthrough before icy weather and German counterattacks slowed its progress.
Patton muttered that the “super planners” seemed more scared than the soldiers and expressed “fear we have not got the mental equipment of one big push.” He sought, more than usual, to use time to compensate for restricted space and lack of mass. His handling of the 3rd Army in the later stages of the Bulge, notably his initial attempts to establish contact with the 1st Army, was frequently characterized by a level of haste that the Germans were experts at punishing. Not until January 16 did elements of Patton’s 11th Armored Division connect with the 1st Army’s vanguards at Houffalize. “Now we will drive them back,” Patton noted, and the 1st and 3rd Armies pushed eastward as thousands of Germans turned from soldiers to fugitives under massive air and artillery strikes. It had not been elegant, but it was effective, and on January 31, Bradley began discussing with Patton and Hodges how best to implement Eisenhower’s general plan for the 12th Army Group’s push for the Rhine.
Patton’s sun was nevertheless at noon. He had emerged from the Bulge a national hero. The army newspaper Stars and Stripes, which he openly loathed as “subversive of discipline,” regularly featured articles praising the general and his army. Charles B. MacDonald, who commanded a rifle company in the Bulge and became one of World War II’s most distinguished historians, asked rhetorically—and legitimately—what it mattered to a GI in a foxhole who commanded him at the top? But one day in the battle’s later stages, someone recognized Patton as his jeep met a convoy of trucks carrying infantrymen toward the front. Within minutes, men were standing up and leaning out, cheering their commander to the echo. Even Bradley went on record that Patton’s generalship during the relief of Bastogne was “one of the most brilliant performances by any commander on either side in World War II . . . rapid, open warfare combined with noble purpose and difficult goals.”
Patton now held his liquor better than most. Praise was another matter, and Eisenhower steadily refused to join the public chorus of acclaim. Yet he told one of SHAEF’s most notorious gossips that “George is really a very great soldier, and I must get Marshall to do something for him before the war is over.” Patton, as expected, received that news within days. “Leadership . . . ,” Patton noted about the same time. “I have it—but I’ll be damned if I can define it.” Dwight Eisenhower had it as well. The old Army’s best poker player knew how to encourage someone to stay in a game by extending the promise of a big win.
Bradley would soon be wearing four stars—a promotion Eisenhower justified to Marshall on the grounds that not promoting him would be the same as affirming an American failure in the Ardennes. That did not prevent his losing the 9th Army to Montgomery, but when SHAEF phoned a proposal to transfer several more divisions to the 6th Army Group, Bradley exploded: “The reputation and the good will of the American soldiers and the American army, and the good will of its commanders are at stake . . . you can take any god-damn division and/or corps in the 12th Army Group, do with them as you see fit, and those of us that you leave back will sit on our asses until hell freezes.” Patton himself could have done no better, and shouted over general applause, “Tell them to go to hell, and all three of us will resign. I will lead the procession.”
From then until the end of the war, Patton was Bradley’s biggest ally—especially once he became aware of Eisenhower’s developed plan for the war’s final stages. Montgomery would mount his offensive north of the Ruhr. Once across the Rhine, the 9th Army would swing south and the 1st Army north in a pincers that would envelop the Ruhr and crush the forces holding it. The 3rd Army, along with the 6th Army Group, would drive across Germany and into Austria and Czechoslovakia, overrunning any remaining German resistance and eventually meeting the Russians.
Not only did the Supreme Commander again appear from Patton’s perspective to be assigning the Americans a set of supporting roles. The 12th Army Group’s attack into the Eifel, which achieved greater initial success than at least the Germans expected, was shut down in favor of reinforcing the 9th Army and supplying a 21st Army Group whose commander nevertheless said he would be unable to launch his offensive until February 10. The 1st and 3rd Armies could continue attacking until that date as long as the casualties and the ammunition expenditure were not excessive.
Patton called it “a foolish and ignoble way to end the war.” The 3rd Army’s supply and replacement situations were better in the first weeks of 1945 than they had ever been. Patton argued for a simultaneous attack all along the front—an attack, he argued, the Germans lacked the resources to stop. He received authorization to continue “probing attacks now in progress” to draw German resources from Montgomery’s front. His response was to repeat his behavior in Lorraine. “Making rock soup,” he called it in an elaborate shaggy-dog story about a hobo who began with a rock and a pot of hot water and showed an incredulous housewife how to make rock soup by borrowing the real ingredients for a mulligan stew from her one at a time.
This meant scrounging extra supplies, avoiding contact with higher headquarters, and keeping his divisions committed in the line so they could not be transferred elsewhere. He fooled neither of his superiors, who were pleased enough to see some progress in an American sector. Eventually, Patton proposed to force a situation that would compel Eisenhower and Bradley to support a full-scale offensive: achieve a local breakthrough, then push two or three armored divisions through to develop and exploit the success. That would leave practically nothing to hold the rest of the 3rd Army’s front—but with three American armored divisions on the loose, there would be no line left to hold.
The Battle of the Bulge had shown Patton the limitations of the 75-millimeter Shermans against the German heavy ranks. His ordnance units were working on a way to up-gun them in the field. Patton also authorized additional frontal and turret armor for all the 3rd Army’s 76-millimeter tanks, including the new ones arriving from the states in increasing numbers, contracting the work to Belgian factories when it proved beyond the limits of his own ordnance people. Then, on February 10, Bradley dropped the hammer. Patton must transfer an infantry division and a corps headquarters to the 1st Army. And how soon could the 3rd Army shift to the defensive?
Patton replied that he was goddamned if he would comply. As the Army’s oldest serving general, he would resign first. When Bradley said he owed it to his troops to stay, Patton responded that “there was a lot owed to me, too.” “The only army group I would like to have,” he wrote to Bea, was “one in China without Allies.”
What Patton got was permission to continue an “active defense” in the Eifel. As the VIII and XII Corps pushed across the Our and Sauer Rivers, their commander spent a few days in Paris. In what Patton could only regard as a major policy shift, Chief of Staff Bedell Smith informed him that he had “quite a few” divisions available and asked how many Patton would require to resume his offensive, advancing into the Palatinate toward Kaiserslauten and Sarreguemines. Told “five,” Smith replied, “I think you should have twelve.” Smith took the pleasantly shocked Patton hunting. He attended the Folies Bergere, came away with an offer to consider the theater his home, and returned to the front, where he promptly rediscovered the worth of a staff officer’s word.
Asking Bradley for up to three more divisions, Patton received one, with restrictions on its use and a sharp reminder that SHAEF had decided to make the main effort elsewhere. When Bradley visited the 3rd Army headquarters to drive home the point personally, Patton and his corps commanders begged to continue to advance, at least until the capture of Trier. “I wonder if ever before in the history of war, a winning general had to plead to be allowed to keep on winning,” Patton confided to his diary.
Bradley had his own recipe for rock soup. When Trier proved more of an obstacle than expected, he told Patton to keep on until “higher authority” intervened and said he would not listen for the telephone. After the city fell on March 1, Patton received directions to bypass it, because its capture would require four divisions. Patton answered, “Have taken Trier with two divisions. Do you want me to give it back?” Vintage Georgie—and a counterpoint to Bradley’s order of March 3 that the 12th Army Group close up to the Rhine north of the Moselle.
Ironically, Simpson’s 9th Army and Hodges’s 1st both reached the Rhine before Patton, with Hodges’s 9th Armored Division bouncing the first crossing at the Remagen Bridge on March 7. Patton congratulated his colleagues suitably, indeed fulsomely, while pursuing the opportunity offered by Trier’s capture to break south into the Bavarian Palatinate. What to a conventionally minded general might seem an excursion would from Patton’s perspective enable the 3rd Army to envelop the West Wall’s remaining defenses from the north and in cooperation with the 6th Army Group overrun southern Germany in a replication of the dash across France. Bradley underwrote the maneuver, and in the first half of March, the 3rd Army seemed omnipresent. The 4th Armored Division was again the star of the show as it broke loose for the Rhine, reaching the last ridge line west of the river on March 7 after covering fifty-five miles in two days, bypassing and scattering retreating German columns, taking five thousand prisoners and losing only a hundred of its own men.
Had Patton or Gaffey been a bit more opportunistic, the 4th might well have picked off a Rhine bridge of its own. Instead, it turned south toward the Moselle. Walker’s XX Corps drove its armored spearheads through terrain even the Germans considered virtually impassable to link up with the 4th, and German resistance on Patton’s front collapsed. When Eisenhower asked the 7th Army’s commander if he had any problems with Patton staging a “hot pursuit” into his sector, Alexander Patch answered, “We are all in the same army.” He had lost his son in the long run up from Marseilles—something that can change a man’s priorities and perspectives.
With the end in sight, Eisenhower felt he could risk generosity. After the capture of Trier, he told Patton’s staff that the 3rd Army did not appreciate its own greatness and was not cocky enough! Now he said to Patton, “George, you are not only a good general, you are a lucky general, and as you will remember, in a general, Napoleon prized luck above skill.” Patton appreciated the flattery, but commented that Eisenhower would be running for president after the war, and the 3rd Army represented a lot of votes! He was more grateful for the allocation of an additional armored division to support his drive for the Rhine as the remnants of two German armies sought to escape across the river, blowing bridges behind them.
On March 24, Patton’s 12th Armored Division met the 7th Army’s 14th Armored, closing off the main lines of retreat. Two days earlier, elements of the 5th Infantry Divison had crossed the Rhine without serious opposition. The crossing was not entirely improvised. On March 21, Eisenhower had ordered the establishment of a “firm bridgehead” across the Rhine. Patton had ordered bridging equipment forward even earlier. As his engineers drove pontoons across the fast-flowing river, he telephoned Bradley. “Don’t tell anyone, but I’m across.” “Well I’ll be damned,” was Bradley’s unvarnished reply. With a day to stabilize the bridgehead, Patton phoned Bradley again. This time he wanted his superior to tell the whole world the 3rd Army had crossed the Rhine—without the elaborate preparations characterizing Montgomery’s long-delayed set-piece, which also took place on the 23rd.
“We are the eighth wonder of the world,” Patton boasted of the 3rd Army. “And I had to beg, lie, and steal to get started—now everybody says ‘that is always what we wanted to do.’ I hope things keep smooth. It seems too good to be true.” On March 24, he crossed the Rhine, stopping midway to urinate in the river, then, on reaching the German side, deliberately stumbled and picked up two handfuls of dirt as William the Conqueror had done on landing in England in 1066.
Patton had not been on the recent list of senior officer promotions, but he had been in the Army too long not to understand the elements of hierarchy that for the present kept him a three-star general. “At the moment,” he declared, “I am having so much fun fighting I don’t care what the rank is.” On March 13, he wrote to Marshall, asking to be considered once the war in Europe was over for any kind of command from a division up in the Pacific. He was old enough that this would be his last war, and he wanted to see it through till the end.
George Patton’s war might well have ended even earlier, and under a cloud of disgrace. It began with a minor adjustment of the 3rd and 7th Army boundaries, one that put a POW camp near the small city of Hammelburg in Patton’s zone of responsibility. A reasonable body of evidence indicated his son-in-law John Waters, captured in Tunisia, was confined there, and Patton’s letters to Bea strongly suggest he believed it. Over the reservations of the corps and division commanders involved, Patton insisted that a raid be mounted to liberate the camp. His motivations were not entirely familial. American forces under Douglas MacArthur had recently and to much fanfare liberated two prison camps in the Philippines—a red flag to the competitive Patton. The operation itself was risky, but not more so than many others undertaken under the 3rd Army’s auspices. The division Patton selected was the 4th Armored—most likely of any in all of SHAEF to pull off such a stroke.
The problem was, in mocrocosm, that confronting the U.S. Army throughout the campaign in Northwest Europe: force ratios. The 4th Armored’s commander, new to the job, believed the mission required a full combat command: a third to a half the division. Eddy was unwilling to divert that large of a force. Patton also believed something smaller would suffice for what he regarded as an in-and-out operation depending heavily on speed and surprise. The raid was eventually mounted by a company each of Shermans and infantry in half-tracks: about three hundred men. The task force moved out on March 26, reached the camp easily, but on its return was surrounded and destroyed. The camp was overrun a second time a few days later by a division of the 7th Army. Patton’s son-in-law, badly wounded in the earlier fighting, was among the liberated.
Patton made every effort to turn the Hammelburg raid into a “black operation” or, better yet, send it down a black hole. In this he benefited from President Roosevelt’s death on April 12, which dominated the news to the extent that “you could execute buggery in the streets and get no farther than the fourth page.” Patton nevertheless insisted at a press conference that he had not known of Waters’s presence in the camp and described the raid as reflecting concern that the prisoners might be murdered. His behavior prior to the raid speaks eloquently to the first point. As for the second, it had validity in the Pacific, where American prisoners were not only regularly killed but at times eaten. The Wehrmacht, however, had been consistently correct, if not always scrupulous, in its treatment of U.S. prisoners; there was no need to panic over this particular camp.
Patton expected a public reaction something like that to the slapping incident. Hammelburg was in fact far worse; neither a lapse of personal judgment nor a “rank has its privileges” personal indulgence. Hammelburg was an egregious abuse of command power for personal reasons. Even had it succeeded it was grounds enough to break Patton out of the service.3 Bradley responded by publicly accepting most of Patton’s story, regretting what he called “just a spectacular stunt . . . doomed from the start” and “deploring” the “impetuousness” prompting it. “Had he asked permission I would have vetoed it”—yet Bradley neither rebuked Patton personally nor reprimanded him officially. “Failure itself was George’s own worst reprimand.” Eisenhower explained it to Marshall as “a wild goose chase . . . I hope the newspapers do not make too much of it. . . . Patton is a problem child, but he is a great fighting leader in pursuit and exploitation.” In war, they send for the hard men and bury the consequences wholesale. George Patton was far from the only hard case in SHAEF’s upper echelons.
By now the bulk of the 3rd Army was across the Rhine, with the 6th Armored Division reaching Frankfurt on March 26, then crossing the Main on the 28th to catch up with the 4th Armored. These two divisions had been for the 3rd Army what the 2nd and 3rd Armored were for Hodges’s 1st: the pace-setters. Now they led Patton’s drive toward Giessen and into the Fulda Gap, meeting only scattered albeit occasionally fierce opposition. In the first week of April, Patton’s spearheads were as much as forty miles ahead of those of the 1st and 9th Army. Bradley, however, had come to share Eisenhower’s belief that the 12th Army Group’s next best step was the encirclement of the Ruhr—both because it promised an American Cannae and guaranteed the return of the 9th Army to Bradley’s command as the northern arm of the pincers. The al-ternateprospect, a drive into Germany toward the Elbe River by the 1st and 3rd Armies, had terrain in its favor, but not politics.
By now there was little doubt at SHAEF that American field armies could plan and execute large-scale, armor-tipped advances. Patton with the bit in his teeth could drag Hodges and Bradley in his wake across what remained of the Reich. But to what end? The Yalta Conference earlier in the year had established postwar zones of occupation. The pace and mass of the Red Army’s offensive in the east had brought it so close to Berlin that Eisenhower no longer believed the Western allies had a chance to take the city without high risk and heavy casualties. Instead of turning the 3rd Army loose, Eisenhower and Bradley stood it down until April 10, giving Hodges and Simpson chance to close up. Their leashes slipped once more, the 6th Armored made fifty miles in a day to the Napoleonic battlefield of Jena, only to see the 4th Armored catch up the next day. But the armor, and the 3rd Army as a whole, was being slowed by improvised defenses based on the large concentrations of heavy anti-aircraft guns that had defended Saxony’s industrial zones and were now turned Rommel-style against tanks and half-tracks that proved as vulnerable in central Germany as in North Africa.
When on April 12, Eisenhower informed Patton of his decision not to strike for Berlin, Patton nevertheless protested. When Eisenhower asked who would want the devastated city, Patton answered that history would answer that question. The Supreme Commander, however, had another, more pressing concern. Since the autumn of 1944, Allied intelligence had been warning of a “National Redoubt” being developed in Germany’s southern mountains—a fortress to which the Reich’s remnants could withdraw and prolong the war for months and years. Combined with growing concern for the prospects of underground resistance in occupied Germany, the so-called “Werewolves,” the notion of a broken-backed resistance in near-impassable terrain, alarmed SHAEF sufficiently to make destroying organized German forces in the south a high priority.
The initial responsibility fell to the 6th Army Group. But on April 15, with the 9th and 1st Armies holding in place on the Elbe to await the Russians, Bradley was ordered to send the 3rd Army south into Austria and help eliminate the last possibilities of continued organized resistance. The decision was motivated in part by Eisenhower’s wish to have Bradley and Patton share in the war’s final headlines—an emotion in part fuelled by an ongoing, long-term dislike of Devers. Patton, denied a shot at Berlin, basked in what he considered the Supreme Commander’s favor, and its concrete manifestation of a 3rd Army increased to four corps and eventually no fewer than eighteen divisions.
“We got the ball for what looks like the final play,” he wrote to Bea on April 17. He was a full general now, with date of rank from April 14—one day ahead of Courtney Hodges! As the 3rd Army drove down the Danube Valley, resistance to its fast-moving spearheads eroded, with more and more Germans discarding their uniforms and making for home as best they might. Everywhere swastikas were replaced by the white flags of surrender. The 3rd Army’s longtime foe, the 11th Panzer Division, threw in the towel on May 4, the last of the Panzers. Patton, with his eye on Prague, had his staff working on plans to cross the prewar border, and on May 4, he received Eisenhower’s approval. Two days later, he was informed that Eisenhower had negotiated a stop line with the Soviet forces in Czechoslovakia to avoid possible friendly fire incidents. The line ran through Pilsen, just a few miles north of Prague, and the 3rd Army was drawing up to it when George Patton’s war ended on May 7, 1945.